New Orleanians figured prominently in quest for racial justice
by Keith Weldon Medley
In 1942, a Civil Rights group called the Congress of Racial Equality emerged in Chicago far away from the Deep South. The organization reflected the vision of its founder, James Leonard Farmer. A graduate of Howard University’s Divinity School, Farmer sought to apply the principles of Satyagraha, or Soul Force, to the American civil rights struggle. Popularized by India’s Mohandas Gandhi in 1919, Satyagraha espoused non-violent resistance to unjust laws. Since practitioners did not respond in kind to physical and verbal abuse, Satyagraha required extraordinary amounts of personal commitment, mental discipline and emotional restraint.
CORE applied its principals in 1947 when members embarked on an interracial bus trip called “The Journey of Reconciliation.” Their goal was to boldly challenge segregation in transportation facilities with civil disobedience. As they traveled through the South, this early group of activists were arrested and forced to serve time on chain gangs for violating North Carolina’s segregation statutes.
CORE in New Orleans
In the 1960s, CORE expanded into the Deep South. The move coincided with a deepening involvement of college students in civil rights activities. In February 1960, four students in Greensboro N. C. refused to leave a lunch counter after being refused service sparking the modern day sit-in movement. Their actions prompted similar sit-ins throughout the country including Louisiana. In the spring of 1960, 17 Southern University students were arrested and subsequently expelled from college for conducting demonstrations at segregated facilities in downtown Baton Rouge.
One of the expelled students, Marvin Robinson, became a field director for CORE and initiated efforts to start a chapter in New Orleans. Rudy Lombard was a student at Xavier University when he, Robinson and James McCain met in 1960. Like many in his generation, Lombard was moved to action by the Greensboro sit-ins, an event he described as the “lighting of the torch” for those who sought to quicken the pace of change.
“I was aware of Marvin. I followed the activities of Southern in Baton Rouge. He told me CORE was putting together a meeting at the Dryades Street Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and asked me to get involved,” Lombard recalls. “That’s where I met Oretha Castle Haley, Julia Aaron, Jerome Smith, and other students from Southern University. Also present were David Dennis from Dillard, and white students from Tulane including Bill Harrel and Hugh Murray.”
That group became the core of CORE in the city. Lombard became the local chairperson.
In September of 1960, CORE engineered New Orleans’ first sit-in of the modern era. Seven of its members sat down at Woolworth’s “White Only” lunch counter at Canal and North Rampart streets and ordered food. After being denied service, at 2:30 p.m. the police surrounded, closed and barricaded the counter. They arrested the CORE members and charged them with ‘taking temporary possession of a man’s business.’ The arrestees included former Southern students, Jerome Smith and Ruth D’aspenza; Tulane students, William Harrell and Hugh Murray; Xavier student, Joyce Taylor; SUNO student, William Harper; and Dillard student, Archie Allen.
The following day, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council picketed in their defense. In addition, St. James A.M.E. Church donated proceeds from a Fellowship of Prayer offering while the Studs Social and Pleasure Club solicited donations from its membership. In response to the protests, Mayor ‘Chep’ Morrison threatened that “no more sit-in demonstrations or picketing of retail stores would be permitted.” Despite his rebuke, four days later Lombard, Oretha Castle, Cecil Carter and Sidney Goldfinch repeated the sit-in tactic at the McCrory’s store on Canal Street. Lombard refused bond and issued a statement of CORE’s position.
“The issue is clear,” he stated. “Segregation is morally wrong. We must oppose it if we are to live with ourselves.”
Through CORE, a tight-knit group of young New Orleanians and their allies became involved in the struggle for equality. In addition to Lombard, local CORE activists included Isaac Reynolds, Matt Suarez, Dr. Henry Mitchell, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons and attorneys Robert Collins and Lolis Elie.
Coining the term “actionists” to describe themselves, the CORE cadre attended workshops on the philosophy and practice of non-violent direct action. Despite frequent police harassment and jail terms, New Orleans CORE members sat-in at restaurants, knelt-in at segregated churches and spent long hours picketing stores on Canal and Dryades streets. Their leaflets advised New Orleanians to “Don’t Buy Discrimination” and “Register to Vote”. They supported efforts to desegregate New Orleans schools. Cultural offshoots of their movement included the New Orleans-based Free Southern Theater.
Attorneys Robert Collins, Nils Douglas, John P. Nelson, and Lolis Elie defended many CORE activists in the Orleans Parish court system. Elie remembers them as a group of people who transcended traditional civil rights organizations:
“What CORE brought was not just people who paid dues and attended meetings,” Elie says. “They were more in line with what the Underground Railroad was about. They worked for civil rights seven days a week.”
1961 – New Orleans Joins the Freedom Rides
“Those on the bus with us were a group of people who had never been in each other’s company, bonded by a common goal. Our only weapon was that we were right in what we were doing.”
Doris Castle, a 17-year-old Freedom Rider from New Orleans in a 1986 interview with the writer.
What began as a demonstration to win enforcement of a six-year-old Interstate Commerce Commission ruling prohibiting segregation in travel, the Freedom Rides exploded into a defining battle of equality versus racial supremacy. The people who embarked on this harrowing journey fought for a cause higher than themselves. In May of 1961, James Farmer launched a two-week bus ride from Washington D.C. to New Orleans to test segregated facilities along the way. Farmer called the action a “sit-in on wheels.” On May 4, 1961, a contingent of seven Blacks and six Whites left Washington, DC, aboard a Greyhound bus. They intended to reach New Orleans on May 17 with stops in Birmingham, Montgomery and Jackson. But as the bus dipped deeper into the South, the number and intensity of racial incidents increased. In Charlotte, N.C., police arrested 27-year-old James Peck who attempted to get a shoeshine at a barbershop in the terminal. In Rock Hill, S.C., youths attacked future United States Congressman John Lewis and two White CORE members when Lewis refused to leave the White waiting area.
On May 12, the group reached Atlanta. After mapping out details for the next phase, they recruited additional riders and boarded a Greyhound and a Continental Trailways bus to Birmingham. The scene turned ugly outside Anniston, Ala. A Ku Klux Klan organized mob of 100 segregationists laid in wait. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to board the bus, segregationists flung a firebomb through an open window that injured 12 passengers. The flames eventually consumed the bus. In Birmingham, a large group of segregationists occupied the terminal, sealing off exits and blocking access to telephones. After a Black CORE member defiantly entered the “White Only’ reception area, a group of 30 segregationists surrounded him, shoved him backwards and punched him repeatedly in his face. After assessing their position the next day, CORE decided to cancel the remainder of the trip. In the course of their two-week trek, over 25 people had been injured. Three had been arrested, and a bomb had destroyed a bus. For the moment, it seemed that the desegregation of transportation facilities would have to wait.
The Nashville Coordinating Committee
When it appeared that Freedom Rides might be only a footnote in Civil Rights history, a group called the Nashville Coordinating Committee planned their continuation. Comprised of students from colleges throughout Nashville, the Committee conducted sit-ins and other demonstrations that resulted in desegregation of lunch counters and movie theaters. Like their New Orleans counterparts, these students shared a single-minded quest for equality. The life-and- death risks did not intimidate them.
Though bruised and bloodied, the Freedom Riders’ spirit remained unshaken. In serious condition from repeated blows to the head, 21-year-old White student James Zwerg reaffirmed commitment in a May 23 New York Times article. “We are not martyrs or publicity seekers. We want only equality and justice, and we will get it. From here we go to Jackson.”
In that same article, another hospitalized student, William Barbee, declared, “As soon as we’re recovered we’ll start again.”
And Diane Nash proclaimed, “They beat us and we’re stronger than ever… We will not stop. There is only one outcome.”
“These are the pioneers” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many urged Dr. Martin Luther King to encourage the students to abandon the unnerving Freedom Rides. While fearing for their safety, he acknowledged their effort, saying “These are the pioneers who are making the way possible for people of all races to ride buses unmolested. I can conceive of no great social change or progress without some individuals who are willing to take the blows and who are temporarily misunderstood.”
New Orleans CORE members Julia Aaron, Doris Castle, David Dennis, Jean Catherine Thompson and Jerome Smith joined the ride to the Jackson, Miss. On Wednesday, May 24, 1961, Dr. King held a prayer breakfast for the riders and wished them well. United, the Freedom Riders boldly returned to the Montgomery bus terminal where they had previously been beaten. With the national spotlight on Montgomery, this time an escort included an armed convoy of 42 vehicles, two helicopters, and a reconnaissance plane. As the contingent weaved its way through the poverty, oppression, and hope of Alabama’s Black Belt, the riders sang songs of freedom: “Hallelujah, I’m traveling, Ain’t it fine?/Hallelujah, I’m traveling down freedom’s mainline.”
Right before the Mississippi line, a Black woman alongside the road smiled, waved and reached out her hand to touch the bus.
Doris Castle remembered the ride into Jackson this way: “We met the night before in the Montgomery church where we heard Martin Luther King, Jr. and other inspirational speeches. The next day we went to the terminal, used the White waiting rooms and water fountains, and (we) were then escorted to the Mississippi line by Alabama guardsmen and state troopers. It’s indescribable to think of yourself on a bus in a hostile country and look out and see nothing but White (people), armed with machine guns in a combat readiness position. Those on the bus with us were a group of people who had never been in each other’s company, bonded by a common goal. Our only weapon was that we were right in what we were doing.”
The 27 Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson that evening. When they finally left their jail cells, they explained their actions. Jerome Smith of New Orleans pointed out how the Freedom Rides showed the world “what minorities must suffer.” Lucretia Collins simply stated, “I want to be treated like an American citizen.”
After refusing to be tried in a segregated courtroom, Jerome Smith served four months in the Hinds County Jail. After his release, he led another group of riders to McComb, Miss., where a mob beat them mercilessly. Doris Castle and Julia Aaron spent four months in the Hinds County Jail. Rather than pay fines, many spent their summer and autumn serving 120-day sentences in Mississippi’s dingy Parchman Prison or the jail in Hinds County. Doris Castle recalled how she and Julia Aaron passed the time adapting popular songs to the times. To the tune of Ray Charles’ recording of Hit the Road Jack, they sang, “It’s Your Life Jack, Don’t Be Afraid No More.”
CORE expanded the workshops to teach the many volunteers about the risks and rewards of nonviolent resistance. For the rest of 1961, numerous contingents of Freedom Riders crisscrossed the South challenging racial barriers and demanding equality.
In 1964, as a member of the Coalition of Federated Organizations, CORE became active in the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The coalition organized the resources of over a thousand volunteers from across the country to establish freedom schools, health and legal clinics, and voter registration offices. Their goal was to demolish the hateful laws and practices that had confronted people of color for over a century. In 1962, Mississippi registered only 6.7 percent of its African American voters, the smallest percent in the country.
The Freedom Summer campaign was organized by a coalition called the Mississippi Council of Federated Organizations, which was led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC’s Bob Moses described their effort: “We hope to send into Mississippi this summer upwards of 1,000 students from all around the country who will engage in Freedom Schools, voter registration activity, and open up Mississippi to the country.”
In 1964, Freedom Summer began. Thousands of predominantly White college students descended on Mississippi. Hundreds of reporters covered the events. During Freedom Summer, 30 schools were established with volunteers. In addition to their teaching the fundamentals, the Freedom Schools taught Black history, the Civil Rights Movement and leadership development. The schools attracted 3,000 students who were taught under the constant threat of White supremacist violence. Dozens and Black churches and Black businesses were firebombed and set on fire. Mississippi law enforcement arrested more than 1,000 volunteers.
Tragedy shook this endeavor in the summer of 1964 when White supremacists murdered Black Mississippian James Chaney and two White CORE volunteers from New York named Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. A field near Philadelphia, Miss., held their remains. Dillard student David Dennis, who headed CORE’s Mississippi staff during the period, eulogized Chaney at his funeral:
Dennis exhorted the crowd at Chaney’s funeral: “Stand up! The best way we can remember James Chaney is to demand our rights. Stand Up. Those neighbors, who were too afraid to come to this service, pick them up and take them down there to register to vote. Go down there and do it. Don’t ask that White man if you can register to vote. Just tell him: ‘Baby I’m here.’”
The continuing full court by student groups kept civil rights issues on the front burner of American politics. They elicited a host of rulings and laws from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. One by one, legal barriers toppled. Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, a week after the disappearance of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman. The Voting Rights Act came the following year. Proudly, the sacrifices of young men and women from New Orleans helped to nation to live up to its principles.