A Story of Organizing and New Orleans Too Good Not to Share

CORE sit-in at Woolworth’s in New Orleans

New Orleans   The lead story in one New Orleans paper, The Advocate, was about the harassment that is tragically commonplace in the New Orleans restaurant and service industry.  Another New Orleans paper, The Times-Picayune, in a several part feature had exposed the culture of harassment at the Besh Restaurant Group, employing more than a 1000 workers in 11 restaurants in New Orleans and around the country, leading to celebrity chef John Besh’s resignation.  Given all of that, it was relief to read a story that linked organizing and the service industry, so I’ll share this piece in the New York Times by Bee Wilson called, “The Dinner That Fueled the Civil Rights Freedom Fighters,”

Like any good soup, a bowl of Louisiana gumbo can uplift you even when there is nothing to feel uplifted about. On Sept. 17, 1960, a group of students in New Orleans, three black and one white, sat down at McCrory’s whites-only lunch counter and refused to leave until they were served. The students were convicted of criminal mischief, though that would be overturned by the Supreme Court in Lombard v. Louisiana (1963), a key moment in the fight against segregation. But before this historic meal came another: The sit-in was organized few days earlier over spicy gumbo at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.

Gumbo makes people braver; it satisfies the soul and gets you talking, says Leah Chase, the legendary African-American chef of Creole cuisine, who is still cooking at 94. “Honey, this is where they planned the thing,” she says over the phone from New Orleans, her voice warm and musical. She remembers the young activists who belonged to CORE — the Congress of Racial Equality — eating a series of lunches and dinners that September in her restaurant’s upstairs room.

The leader was Rudy Lombard, 21, a fiery orator. Also there were Cecil Carter Jr., another black student; Lanny Goldfinch, a white student; and Oretha Castle, a courageous black human rights campaigner whose mother, Vergie, was the bartender at Dooky Chase. It was illegal at that time in the South for blacks and whites to eat in the same restaurant, but this danger didn’t deter the CORE students, who often spoke of sacrificing their lives for the cause. They shared seafood gumbo thickened with filé powder (ground dried sassafras leaves), fried chicken and Lombard’s favorite Italian salad of salami, capers and olives, with Lolis Edward Elie, a local lawyer. Over the food there were intense discussions about what they could and couldn’t do to advance their cause within the law. The activists toasted their plans with glasses of Barq’s root beer. According to Chase, “When they were working, they didn’t drink so much as a bottle of beer.”

In 1960, Dooky Chase was one of the very few dining places in New Orleans where black people could eat with heavy cutlery on pressed linen tablecloths. Growing up, Lombard once told a radio interviewer, he dreamed of eating somewhere like that. His mother worked as a cook for a rich family, and she worked across the street from a fancy restaurant called Pascal’s Manale. As a boy, Rudy longed to eat there. Chase gave him and the other CORE members a taste of that restaurant ease. He once said he saw the restaurant as “an incubator of black people’s aspirations.”

Another activist who regularly ate there was Raphael Cassimere Jr., an emeritus history professor at the University of New Orleans. Cassimere remembers meetings of the N.A.A.C.P., whose office was a few blocks away, where people got “all steamed up,” but as soon as everyone was sitting down with Chase’s gumbo, “you’d be laughing again.” This gumbo was like the food of Louisiana grandmothers, Cassimere recalls, except that “you could get it 24 hours. And it was cheap.” Sometimes, in an extra-generous mood, Chase didn’t charge at all. She fed many of the Freedom Riders, who took a series of perilous bus trips through the South in 1961, trying to use whites-only restrooms and restaurants along the way.

Sometimes the activists arrived at the restaurant dirty, right out of jail. “Poor darlings,” she says. “I used to feel so sorry for them.” Chase sent them around the corner to Vergie’s home to take a bath. And then she fed them.


Leslie Dunbar, John Lewis, and Heeding the Call of the Civil Rights Movement

Leslie W. Dunbar speaking to the Loyal Democrats of Mississippi Convention in 1968. Credit Tony Dunbar

New Orleans   Thus far President-elect Trump and his office have said nothing formally in commemoration of Martin Luther King Day. His Twitter-attack on civil rights warrior and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis capsulizes his own special oblivion to the struggles and aspirations of tens of millions who don’t live in Manhattan and winter in Florida.

I was struck by the contrast as I recently read the obituary of Leslie Dunbar in my local newspaper when he passed away at nearly 96 years old. I didn’t know Leslie well, but I knew him from his time as executive director of the Field Foundation when I tried to raise money from him in the 1970s. During the time that Field operated the foundation was famous, especially under Dunbar’s direction as a funder of voting rights and civil rights efforts, particularly in the South.

Several years after founding ACORN in 1970, as we made our first ventures to New York in 1974 to try and raise foundation money, Leslie and Field were on the short list as “naturals” to support a growing community organization with roots in Arkansas. My first visit didn’t go well and in a follow-up letter when I described ACORN’s mission as trying to build an AFL-CIO of membership-based community organizations of low and moderate income families, he dismissed the whole effort somewhat brusquely with a hand scribbled note saying that, “the last thing we need in this country is another AFL-CIO.” That stung, even though decades later, I can concede the point as the AFL-CIO becomes more and more sclerotic, and eventually Field became one of our consistent funders until it closed its doors. After Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, it was great to talk with Leslie and his son, Tony, when he visited New Orleans before moving to the city in the last years of his life.

His obituary spoke to the transformational power of the civil rights movement though and the clarity of its call to men and women who cared about people and equal rights and justice for all. It turned out Leslie had a PhD in political philosophy and constitutional law from Cornell and had bounced around on the track between academia and government service until ending up running the political science department at Mount Holyoke when in 1958 he jumped into the fray. Remember that the Montgomery Bus Boycott which propelled Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence ran from early December 1955 until about the same time 1956. The power of this emerging civil rights movement was life changing for millions, and Leslie Dunbar was clearly one of the many who ached for a way to align their convictions with their actions or move in Trump’s sense from all talk to as close to all action as they might get. In Dunbar’s case he moved to the Southern Regional Council, which was a mainstay of research and advocacy around race and voting rights at the time and for many years thereafter. When I’m in Little Rock I still take note on most visits of the plaque that remains in our building’s meeting room when ACORN was named by the SRC as the outstanding organization in the South in 1973.

Leslie’s obit notes with some pride his role at the SRC along with King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins in establishing the Voter Education Project, and the 2 million people it helped register. In these early years of ACORN we were proud to work with VEP during the years that John Lewis ran the project from 1970 to 1977. As organizations ran from voter registration and the modern attacks on voting rights that have accelerated in the 21st Century, there is no organization that began in the South as ACORN did in Arkansas in 1970 that didn’t understand that every peoples’ organization had a commitment forever to expand and protect voting rights, regardless of the consequences, if was to be accountable to his membership and their aspirations.

In the sense that John Lewis today is a headline example of such lifetime commitments, Leslie Dunbar and tens of thousands like him, playing roles large and small, uprooted their lives and sometimes gave their lives, as King did, at the call and in service to doing whatever they could and whatever they were able in order to build a movement to change America.

We watch the first African-America president leave office in the legacy of that movement at the same time we watch a new president move to office while trying to ignore and perhaps destroy that movement. He has to be taught once again that we shall not be moved.

Civil Rights activists lead the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 including John Lewis (far left) and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (middle). (Photo by Robert w. Kelley/Getty Images)