Understanding the origins of Alphabet Soup – Black Political Organizations.
Alphabet Soup – Black Political Organizations
I read with interest an article on Verite News, The rise and fall of Black political organizations in New Orleans. My first reaction to the Professor Collins’ article was, as I tweeted, disappointment. The story of Black political organizations in New Orleans deserves a full telling.
A second reading revealed it wasn’t intended as a full treatment of the subject. The editors tagged it as a “4 min read.” Perhaps what was delivered was all Verite wanted.
What really struck me, though, were two serious omissions.
The first is in the telling of the rise of BOLD, COUP, LIFE, SOUL, and other groups. Collins offers no background here, other than increasing Black voter registration was how these groups came into being. That’s true, but only a small part of the story. The Black organizations did indeed come together. They supported Dutch Morial in his campaign to succeed Moon Landrieu as mayor. Collins doesn’t mention the biggest accommplishment of the political groups at that time.
The Deal With The Judges.
Collins offers this summary of the political landscape of the 1980s:
It should be noted that by the late 1980s, suburban white flight was in full effect in New Orleans, decreasing the white population, and increasing the Black population. The Black organizations enjoyed their most power during this period when the city voting rolls flipped from majority white to majority Black. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the groups increased their power by electing many city council members, state legislators, and judges.
This is entirely accurate, but it’s not enough. The whyte infrastructure of New Orleans eroded over time, starting with Dutch’s election in 1977*. A Black leader in City Hall marked the start of the transition, but for all intents and purposes, city government was incredibly whyte. Right out of the gate, Dutch was forced to face down the whyte police union, as NOPD went on strike. While Dutch overcame the union, the strike demonstrated just how deep the whyte roots of government extended.
That’s when the Black organizations discovered a way to strengthen their position. They struck an unofficial deal with the judges of Orleans Parish. In exchange for the Black political infrastructure allowing those judges to run unopposed, the judges agreed to not endorse whyte candidates to succeed them. Black lawyers fought it out as the incumbents retired. It took longer to shift the balance, but it worked.
There are other stories related to the Black organizations that don’t fit in a “4 min read,” and I can’t hold Professor Collins for that. Still, the piece leaves so much out.
Collins writes about the groups’ decline:
There were several structural factors that led to this decline. The first was unique to New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina in 2005. These organizations are neighborhood-based. The hurricane ripped apart many traditional neighborhood ties as former residents rebuilt in new locations.
The decline of the Black organizations pre-dates Hurricane Katrina. Department of Justice came for these organizations almost immediately after George W. Bush took office as President. James B. Letten succeeded Eddie Jordan as US Attorney. Letten and staff came for outgoing Mayor Marc Morial (LIFE). He then came for Congressman Bill Jefferson (Progressive Democrats). Years before the storm, Republicans aggressively came for the Black political infrastructure.
They incarcerated Oliver Thomas
DOJ locked up Bill Jefferson.
The feds came hard for Jacques Morial, in the hopes he would roll on his brother.
Bush’s Department of Justice seriously damaged the Black organizations in Orleans Parish.
Understanding the past is how any group moves forward. Understanding just how much Republicans want to destroy voting blocs who will never support them is important.
*While Dutch did not take office until 1-May-1978, he won the election in November of the previous year. That long delay between election and inauguration was changed for Mitch Landrieu’s second term.