Desegregation and the "Ruling Class" in New Orleans
When DeLesseps S. Morrison resigned as Mayor of New Orleans in 1961 to become U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, the City Council elected Councilman Victor Hugo Schiro as interim mayor. Schiro was subsequently reelected for two more terms and served until 1969. Both mayors were characterized by historian Adam Fairclough as segregationists. The following excerpts from the pages of Adam Fairclough and Fenner biographer Charles L. Dufour identify the centers of power in New Orleans during that period.
The desegregation of the public schools did not, of course, solve the grave issues of the civil rights movement which New Orleans, along with other southern cities, had to face. The Civil Rights Bill was still more than two years away President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill on July 2, 1964 but responsible members of both the white and black communities recognized that a peaceful solution to the problem was essential to the economic and sociological welfare of New Orleans.
At the request of Joe Simon, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, two committees, one white and one black, were created to meet the problems of desegregation and to bring about their peaceful resolution. Harry Kelleher recalled that Joe Simon expressed to him the Chamber of Commerce's considerable concern over racial unrest. Fearing another Birmingham with economic crisis, violence and disorder, Simon asked Kelleher to assist in forming a group of about a dozen leaders in the community. "We needed influential businessmen and media leaders," Kelleher said.
At the same time, Simon approached Lolis E. Elie, one of the leaders in the black community. Elie remembered the conversation more than twenty years later: "Mr. Simon said that if I could put together representative leadership of the black community, he thought he could put together representative leadership of the ruling classes." Elie said that the spokesmen for the black group were Ernest Morial, later mayor of New Orleans; Revius O. Ortique, later a judge on the civil courts bench; Norman Francis, later president of Xavier University; and himself. "It was significant that we were all lawyers," said Elie. He recalled that the white spokesmen were Harry Kelleher [Tulane board, 1963-1975], Harry McCall [Tulane Medical Center board, 1969-1983], Darwin Fenner [Tulane board, 1953-1973], and Joe Simon.
--Charles L. Dufour, p. 80
By 1962 . . . New Orleans was reverting to the pattern that characterized the Morrison years of the 1950: the grudging acceptance of inevitable change. The city's business elite was determined to live down the ugliness of the 1960 schools crisis.
These were men, however, of small compromises rather than strategic vision. Collectively, they wielded great power. Judge John Minor Wisdom, who know them intimately, described them as a kind of "interlocking directorate" or "closed corporation," for the same people could be found on the governing bodies of the Hibernia and Whitney banks, Tulane University, NOPSI, the Orleans Parish Levee Board, and the Board of Liquidation of the City Debt. Many belonged to the same social clubs (Boston and Pelican), sent their children to the same private schools (Newman and Country Day), and masked in the same Mardi Gras krews (Rex, Comus, Momus, and Proteus). This concentration of old wealth made New Orleans one of the most conservative cities in the South. More exclusive and tradition-bound than wealthy whites in other southern cities, such people were slow to change and, in Wisdom's view, "never did really assert themselves in favor of desegregation."
--Adam Fairclough, p. 284
. . . Just as Morrison had denied Municipal Auditorium to the NAACP when he learned that Thurgood Marshall was speaking, so Schiro denied it to the Consumers League when he discovered that Martin Luther King was the star attraction. Schiro's action incensed blacks far more than Morrison's identical act of the previous year.
Yet Shiro's segregationist orthodoxy was misleading: in practice the mayor was a flexible pragmatist. A man with no political ambitions beyond New Orleans, he readily deferred to the judgment of businessmen like Darwin Fenner [Tulane board, 1953-1973], Clifford Favrot [Tulane board, 1951-1968], Richard Freeman [Tulane board, 1959-1972], and Ashton Phelps [Tulane board, 1955-1972]. And these men, however much they loathed integration, had come to the realization that whites must perforce give ground, even if they only conceded it inch by inch.
--Adam Fairclough, p. 281
. . . Lolis Elie, the principal black negotiator, was struck by the fact that the city's leading white businessmen, not the mayor, seemed to be making all the crucial decisions. "After we agreed," [to certain black demands] he later recalled, "I remember Darwin Fenner got on the phone to Vic Schiro, and he says, 'Vic, this is Darwin. Come on over here. I want to see you.' And in five minutes, here comes Vic. This agreement is shoved in his face and he signs it and leaves." By 1963, civil rights activists everywhere suspected that a "white power structure" exercised a dominating influence in virtually every community.
--Adam Fairclough, p. 337
1. Charles L. Dufour, Darwin Fenner: A Life of Service, New Orleans, Louisiana (privately published) 1984, 121 pp.
2. Adam Fairclough, Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1915-1972, Univ. of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1995, 610 pp.
3. Membership on Tulane boards [in brackets] was obtained from Beatrice M. Field and Amanda R. Rittenhouse, POTPOURRI, 2002 (http://alumni.tulane.edu/potpourri/) accessed 1/18/05.
4. Additional information about Mayor Schiro is available at http://specialcollections.tulane.edu/Schiro/Schiro.htm, accessed 3/8/05.