The New Orleans School Crisis of 1960*

This is a study of why one city, which seemingly was ready to be a leader in racial matters, became instead a center of resistance to schooI integration. When four Negro first graders entered two previously aIl-white schools in New Orleans on November 14, 1960, the reaction by the city's extremists was so intense and went unchecked for so long that the city suffered a near catastrophe. Thousands of whites rampaged through the downtorwn business district hurling bricks and bottles. White children boycotted the two schools for a year, and for months an unruly crowd cursed, shoved, stoned, and spat upon the few white children who continued to attend one of the schools—while the nation watched on television.

The school board members who had desegregated the schools under federal court orders were ostracized by their friends and harassed and threatened in late night teIephone calls. The state legislature removed the board members from office and tried to close the city's schools. Because the legislature aIso heId up school funds and local banks refused to cash paychecks, many teachers and school personnel went unpaid for months. Downtown hotels and department stores reported their worst business slump since the Depression.

Critical as these events were, behind them lay the city's most serious problem—a lack of leadership. Consider New York City's school crisis of 1968—and then consider how much worse it could have been if the mayor said that what happened in the schools was not his concern; the city's elite said the school issue was too controversial for them to get involved; the newspapers did not discuss the issue and the public in general acted as though nothing of importance was taking place; if, in short, the school board was left to handle the situation all by itseIf. This is what happened in New Orleans in the 1950s and in 1960.

Not one of New Orleans' leaders had even attempted to prepare the community for desegregation. As late as the fall of 1960—three years after Little Rock—they all believed that the New Orleans schools would never have to be desegregated. All of them were stunned when the federal judge [Judge James Skelly Wright] handed down the order to desegregate. Even then, the leaders did nothing to prepare the community for a peaceful transition. Yet all this took place, not in some land-locked Bible-belt country town, but in the nation's second largest port, home of liberal French Catholicism and one of America's most cosmopolitan cities, thronged with tourists and businessmen from all over the world—cultured, civilized, heterogeneous New Orleans.

The research of which this study of New Orleans is a part was conducted by a staff under the direction of Peter H. Rossi and Robert L. Crain at the National Opinion Research Center. The research consisted of an investigation into the politics of school desegregation in 15 large cities selected more or less at random. The primary source of information for the study of New Orleans was a series of interviews of leading participants in the school desegregation controversy and other knowledgeable persons in New Orleans. These interviews were conducted by Robert T. Stout and the author in October 1964 and by the author in May 1965.

New Orleans was a unique case in two major ways: It was the only city in the sample that had experienced a campaign of organized violence in connection with school desegregation, and it was one of the only two Southern cities in the sample in which the elite—the influential bankers, attorneys, and businessmen—did not take part in the decisions that led to the desegregation of the schools. An isolated instance of violence tied to school desegregation occurred in Jacksonville, Florida, and, significantly, Jacksonville is the other city characterized by a withdrawal of the elite. In all the other cities, the elite took a public stand favoring a peaceful solution of the problem. In New Orleans these men refused to take a public stand even after violence had erupted. Eventually, they spoke out for a peaceful solution, but only after life in the city had been seriously disrupted by the continuing chaos and violence.

The passivity of a reform mayor [DeLesseps "Chep" Morrison] and an elite in the face of chaos, violence, and attempts by a governor [James "Jimmie" Davis] and his legislature to close down a city's schools constitutes a major political failure—and a most puzzling one. For though most men wish to avoid unpleasant truths, the very nature of politics forces men in positions of leadership to be realistic and pragmatic—especially when their own interests are at stake. This did not happen in New Orleans. That it did not suggested that the cause was as basic as a flaw in the workings of the city's politics. As I will attempt to show, politics had in fact been pulverized in New Orleans by a series of developments and conditions dating back to the rise of Huey Long.

*Excerpted from the Introduction: Morton Inger, Politics and Reality in an American City: The New Orleans Crisis of 1960, [Monograph] Center for Urban Education, New York 1969, 114 pp.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.



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