300 in Black

Before Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial became the first Black mayor of New Orleans, he had achieved a stellar string of firsts that served as a testament to his steadfast commitment to advancing civil rights both in the city and across the state of Louisiana.

In 1954 he was the first Black graduate of the Louisiana State University School of Law. In 1965, he was the first Black lawyer to serve in the United States Attorney’s office in Louisiana. Two years later, in 1967, he was the first Black person elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives since Reconstruction. In 1970, he was the first Black judge in state juvenile court; and in 1972, he became the first Black to be elected to the state appeals court.

Of course the highlight of all of these achievements along with more than two decades of civil rights activism, including serving as the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1962 to 1965, came on May 1, 1978, when Morial took the oath of office, becoming the city’s first Black mayor.

by Anitra D. Brown

Determined to be the . . . First

Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial was born Oct. 9, 1929 in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward to a working-class family. His father was a cigar maker. His mother, a seamstress.
He graduated from segregated McDonogh 35 Senior High School and Xavier University. In 1954, he became the first African American to graduate from the Louisiana State University School of Law by taking hefty course loads and summer classes to graduate a semester before his cohorts with whom he entered law school. Otherwise, his classmate Robert Collins, also Black, would have graduated ahead of Morial because “C” precedes “M” in the alphabet.
But tenacious and unrelenting, he was determined to be first.

Getting There

When Morial was elected in 1977, New Orleans was just shy of 260 years old. But it had been through a lot, especially Black New Orleans.

The preceding century had ushered in the post-Reconstruction Civil Rights movement led by men like historic New Orleans Tribune founder and publisher Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez and other members of the Citizens Committee and the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that solidified the separate, but equal doctrine that enshrined Jim Crow laws in cities across the southern United States.

While becoming the first Black mayor of New Orleans was a monumental achievement not only for Morial but also for Black New Orleans, whose citizens gave the lawyer and activist 95 percent of the Black vote, it did not occur in a vacuum. It was the result of decades of work, struggle and change.

The Civil Rights movement was alive and well in New Orleans. In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was established here.

During the 1950s and 1960s, lawyers like Nils Douglas, Robert Collins, Lolis Elie, Morial and his mentor A.P. Tureaud challenged unfair laws in courtrooms. There were activists—young and old—such as Rudy Lombard, Oretha Castle Haley, Jerome Smith, Rev. Avery C. Alexander and many others willing to not only serve as plaintiffs in lawsuits, but to wage battles at lunch counters, storefronts and in the basement of City Hall for equal rights, access and opportunity.

In 1960, the desegregation of public schools in New Orleans precipitated the tide of White flight—White residents abandoning the city for the suburbs to minimize integration on their lives.
Black New Orleanians were also experiencing economic and political power in ways they had not before. Former mayor Moon Landrieu’s administration had been the most inclusive at that point in history. During his tenure, Black employment in City Hall increased from 10 percent to 40 percent.

The 1972 opening of Black-owned Liberty Bank also helped to enhance financial opportunities for Black families throughout the city, such as home and business ownership.

New Orleans was shifting and making way for Dutch Morial. To be sure, he also was an integral part of the transformative revolution that made the his election possible.

In addition to his stint as leader of the local NAACP, Morial was an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund on the national level. He filed lawsuits to integrate Municipal Auditorium and to expand desegregation of local public schools. He fought to integrate buses and streetcars and Louisiana State University New Orleans (now the University of New Orleans).

He not only waged war against injustice in the courtroom. He fought in varied ways. For example, he took part in the September 1963 Freedom March in New Orleans. And he participated in the Dryades Street Boycott.

His Legacy

As New Orleans celebrates its 300th anniversary, The New Orleans Tribune proudly salutes Ernest Nathan “Dutch” Morial on the 40th anniversary of his historic inauguration as he city’s first African-American mayor and the 50th anniversary of his election to the state legislature, becoming the first African-American to serve to since Reconstruction.

To some he was passionate . . . intense. Others might remember him as brash and aggressive. He could be a good ally . . . or a formidable opponent.

In perhaps the most memorable example, Morial—barely through the first year of his first term as mayor—squared off against striking policemen in 1979, refusing to give in to their demands despite the impending Carnival season. Eventually, an agreement was reached, with concessions made on both sides, but not before Mardi Gras 1979 was canceled because of the strike.

The majority-owned media had labeled him arrogant, and combative. Maybe he was cocky. What of it? He was certainly confident. Truth be told, this string of negative adjectives were little more than opinions shaped by any number of variables, like whether one was standing next to Morial as friend in a political or civil rights battle or facing him as foe.

What would be far more difficult to contest is whether his tenure resulted in measurable progress for the Black community.

About mid-way through his second term, in an April 1983, a poll conducted by Rose-Stekler Associates, 80 percent of Black respondents indicated that they believed Morial was performing an “excellent” or “good” job as mayor.

The number of African-Americans employed at City Hall increased under Morial’s administration from 40 percent to 53 percent. And his administration is often credited with fostering and nurturing the growth of the city’s Black middle class by ensuring access to government, city contracts and administrative positions. Morial introduced the forerunner to the city’s DBE program by setting quotas for city contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses. Under Morial, contracts to Black-owned firms increased from $17,000 to $11 million under his leadership.

Now, as the city reflects on the 300th anniversary of its founding, the 40th anniversary of Morial’s historic inauguration and the historic election of its first woman mayor, it becomes even more important to assess the gains made over the past four decades

To truly honor the legacy of Dutch Morial and the work of all of those who came before him and those that succeeded him, New Orleans must set about creating and sustaining economic and social progress for all of its citizens and for future generations.

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