Tag Archives: New Orleans

Fifty Years Since the Freedom Rides

NewFreedom_RidersOrleans Thanks to my new library card, I stumbled onto the library’s homepage last weekend to learn how to order books on-line, and what do you know there was an announcement of a event commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides of 1961 complete with a traveling exhibit and speakers, so I trundled down to the dimly lit main library in the pitch dark of this abandoned stretch of the CBD with what turned out to be 30 others.  What a treat this was thanks to Dodie Smith-Simmons joined by several other civil rights veterans of those days who shared their stories.

Dodie Smith (at the time) joined the NAACP Youth Council at 15, largely as she said, because her older sister was going, and she wasn’t going to stay home, and joined the marches and sit-ins in New Orleans at the time which were being led by Rudy Lombard and Jerome Smith.  When the “adult” branch of the NAACP came and met with the Youth Council and told them that they would not bail them out if they got arrested, she told us last night, “that’s when I knew this was for me!”  As the beat quickened she got involved with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, because that was where the action was, and became secretary of the local chapter under the now legendary Oretha Haley.

CORE, joined by SNCC and others, had announced the Freedom Rides in 1961 to challenge the fact that despite the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) having directed that bus transportation between states had to be integrated fully at every level, it was not being enforced despite several court challenges which had been dismissed.  This was a classic campaign opportunity where the “handle” legally was crystal clear and the critical ingredient of “moral rightness” was transcendent, so the tactic of a Freedom Ride on buses beginning in Washington, DC and ending in New Orleans was brilliantly devised to create maximum pressure on the new John F. Kennedy White House.

In many locations there were few difficulties, but in places like Birmingham and Anniston, Alabama the dogs of hate were off the chains.  Dodie still remembered with regret not being allowed by Haley to go on the Rides that then originated in New Orleans to reinvigorate the Freedom Rides in Mississippi.  Hundreds of the riders were dispatched to New Orleans for non-violence training before being allowed to travel. It was Dodie’s job to do the training, so she was stuck behind the lines.  In Mississippi the powers-that-be decided that the Alabama violence was not going to happen there, so they immediately arrested the reinforcements putting literally hundreds, including James Farmer, the head of CORE, first in the Hinds County jail in Jackson, and then moving the whole bunch of them to Parchman Prison.

All of this was vivid to me, and frankly, personal.  I knew Parchman Prison well and had often been on the grounds.  Parchman was notorious as a prison hell-hole made famous by Leadbelly, but it was also smack dab in Sunflower County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta cotton country.  About a dozen miles down the road was then small town of Drew, which is even smaller now, with the sign “Home of Archie Manning” now long faded.  My mother and uncles were born and raised in Drew, and my Grandmother and one of my great aunts lived there until they died.  My Aunt Sue was the postmistress in Drew, where my Grandmother also did a number of years at the mail window.  When my family transferred to New Orleans around 1957 after stints in Wyoming, Colorado and Kentucky, every Thanksgiving and a week or so in the summer found us not in the big city of New Orleans, but visiting old ladies in Drew.  One of the rituals of these trips was driving with Aunt Sue to deliver the mail to Parchman Prison.  She drove a 3-hole Buick and the most dangerous part of the ride was not Parchman, but the fact that she drove the whole way with one set of tires on the pavement and the other on the dirt shoulder.  My brother and I would jump out of her car when she stopped on the prison grounds like we were on a jailbreak!

Fannie Lou Hamer, the great civil rights legend, lived down the highway the other direction from Parchman in Ruleville.  Her cousin took care of my grandmother at home during the last years of my grandmother’s life.  Even as boys there was no avoiding the constant conversations with adults in Drew caught with the world changing all around them, but in New Orleans it was even more evident despite our youth, since change was all around us whether we got in trouble sitting in the back of the bus, because “we liked it” and didn’t understand “the screen” – the movable wooden sign inserted in the seat that said “colored only” —  or liked the soda fountain at Woolworths and didn’t care if it was integrated or not, because as we were often told we “weren’t from here, so we didn’t understand.”  Luckily, we never understood in “that” way.

Dodie talked about how important SUNO and LSUNO were as factories for the protests from the young.  Others added the names of so many that helped lead the civil rights struggles from New Orleans and how important, and overlooked, the role of the city as part of the crucible of civil rights.

A choir was there singing “Jacob’s Ladder” and other spirituals, and moved with Dodie when she led us all in singing “We Shall Overcome” to open and close this rare and special meeting.  It was good to say “thanks” to some of the veterans and listening to these stories of courage and often pain of beatings and jail time told with humor and spirit, and realize how much change we have seen, how big our debts are, as well as how much still remains to be done.


Abandoned Communities: Detroit & New Orleans

themotorlesscity.comNew Orleans        There is no question that Detroit has been an economically troubled city for some time now.  Apocryphal, urban legends have grown around this great city of quail and bird counts returning to some areas because they have essentially gone “back to wilderness” due to abandonment and lack of population.  Now news of planning reports done for new Mayor and former NBA player, Dave Bing, argue for withdrawing all city services from some sections of Detroit to concentrate resources and push populations into areas that city planners still believe that they can save.
I’m skeptical of such plans partially because of the lessons learned painfully in the battles around post-Katrina New Orleans, where world class, hot shot planners in league with land and business developers (as always!) tried to argue that entire districts of New Orleans should be allowed to somehow return to cypress swamps and green zones.  We stopped it from happening in New Orleans, partially through the democratic engagement of people who wanted to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods and had the opportunity of an election for district based council and the mayor to force their will and partially because in the United States property rights maybe even stronger than democratic values.
It is very difficult, even for sharpie business men and developers, to make the case that someone does not have the right to live on their own property.  Under “equal protection” constitutional guarantees it is also very difficult to imagine legally how cities like New Orleans then or Detroit now could simply abandon citizens and taxpayers by withdrawing all services to favor other citizens and taxpayers.  Detroit officials already seemed trapped by these realities even as they are trying to imagine something different.  They were at pains to try and argue that they were not going to “shrink” the city, but were committed to maintaining their boundaries at the same 139 square miles.  In fact the only way I can imagine Detroit legally getting around this problem is if they redrew the boundaries of the city, thereby disclaiming responsibility for the very ground itself and the people in it.  If they are not willing to do that, this is all just another exercise in doomsday-politics, and the truth is that Detroit also has a district council system, so politicians on the wrong side of the service ban will also be fighting for their futures as well.  In short in all likelihood this is another planning mirage that is simple DOA – dead on arrival.
Nonetheless the problems are real with declining tax revenues and wholesale abandonment of properties that cost an immense amount to tear down (Buffalo is a good example of a city with a removal program that can’t afford to remove) or rebuild which is the problem in both Detroit with its 50,000 properties needing rehab and New Orleans with our more than 60,000.  Furthermore for all the big talk about the “jack lantern” effect of sustaining citizen households in abandoned communities, there is never a real incentive or financing that has existed to buy the old properties and pay for the move to another area and the house there.  In New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Katrina developers, big shots, and some environmentalists were Cassandras calling for a movement to “higher ground” and the 1850 footprint of the city, but in the wake of the storm higher ground was now phenomenally more expensive and no one ever had a plan on how the moving van would be paid much less the mortgage for the high rises or new homes on the “city on the hill.”
What is the real vision behind the Detroit abandoned communities plans?  It’s not Blade Runner but more dystopian, perhaps a combination of Mad Max with Mel Gibson planted in an urban landscape living behind a 14-foot tall Sarah Palin-Alaska spite fence and Denzel Washington in Training Day.  This would be the new definition of an “urban frontier,” where a homeowner is holding on to their house in the Detroit plan with no police or fire protection, no street lights or garbage pickup or road repairs or for that matter snow removal.
It’s one thing to live in cities where a lot of this is sketchy, but at least we are all pretending that it could get better or that we can make things better.  When a city simply throws in the towel, it’s neither a plan for the present nor hope for the future, but a full scale abandonment of responsibility and duty to citizens.   A city is not a real estate description but a collective community of shared experience and expectations.  Walk away from that and there’s nothing left at all.