Did you remember we’re in Black History Month? Whether you’re hobnobbing at a ball, chaired along a parade route, or drinking it up in the Quarter, raise at least one glass to New Orleans history makers. The onslaught of beads, high heal shoes and pink wigs can easily have you forget about Black History Month, but Carnival should always remind us of the tremendous contributions of Ernest “Dutch” Morial.
Celebrating local heroes is always made difficult because of our familiarity with them and the contempt that goes along with it. Dutch fought political battles on a patently racist field amidst society’s struggles with complexion and social class. He waged these battles in manner that redefined high stakes. Dutch’s contemporaries would charge that he’s no more a hero than a villain. However, the clarity of hindsight reveals a legacy worthy of placement alongside our nationally revered American history makers.
The road to becoming New Orleans’ first black mayor was paved with numerous other firsts and accomplishments, which on their own place him in the national panoply. To be the first black LSU law graduate is a feat in itself, but using that degree to become the first black to serve in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Louisiana shows higher levels of resilience. In electoral politics, Morial broke multiple barriers. He became the first black in the modern era to be elected to the state House of Representatives; the first black judge on Louisiana’s juvenile court; and the first black elected to the state appeals court.
However, the 1979 cancellation of Mardi Gras revealed Morial’s priorities, courage and political acumen, which solidify him among the greats in everyone’s history books.
During Morial’s first of two terms as Mayor, the New Orleans Police Department sought to protract their strike during the ‘79 Carnival season. On its face, the NOPD leveraged Mardi Gras to bargain for better pay and conditions. A closer inspection reveals that the fight was also about social power, race and class. As soon as Morial got into office, he moved to diversify City Hall and forcibly reform its troubled police department. Holding Mardi Gras as hostage would not stop Morial in achieving those higher goals.
Let’s put Morial’s cancelation of Mardi Gras into perspective. A person of color garnering the support from the public writ large including white krewe leaders, business sector and media certainly exemplifies high political intelligence. But to sacrifice Mardi Gras in the process, shows a moral rectitude and courage we seldom see. Morial looked beyond the police department and cherished traditions to see the democratic potential of New Orleans. Who among us would shut down Carnival for reform? Morial did.
Unfortunately, the police department still needs reforming. New Orleans still needs to find ways to uplift low-skilled people of color in middle class jobs. And we still need political courage. Progress rolls slower than Fat Tuesday. However, New Orleans is further along the route toward our potential because of Dutch. We should not examine the life of Ernest Morial and other great leaders during Black History Month simply to honor their accomplishments. Remembering the heroes and heroines of the past should awaken us to how much more history we have to make.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.