Making Democracy Work

1960's Narrated by Felicia Kahn

LWVNO HISTORY - 1960s by Felicia Kahn

In the 1960s the League of Women Voters of New Orleans was vastly different from in the 1950s. In the 1950s, the League was really just getting started on becoming the kind of organization that it's become today. During the `60s, Civil Rights became a burning issue. Instead of being in the background of many issues as it had been earlier, the League of Women Voters was right up front because organizations were needed, leadership was needed in integration and civil rights. We really had pretty weak people in city government and on the school board. So the citizens groups were very important, and the community leaders were very important. One of the reasons we got through that period without too much upheaval was because we did have citizen participation at all levels. The community can be proud.

In the 1940s and 1950s women in New Orleans had elected school board members. They actually chose them to run and put together campaigns for them. They really tried to reform the public education scene in New Orleans. So, the League members knew the school board people and the Board was willing to work with the women.

The 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education caused an uproar in Louisiana. The state legislature was really taken aback. It took a few years for them to realize that the law directed the Orleans Parish Schools to integrate. That wasn't brought up in the legislature until 1960.

In 1960 the League president rushed to Baton Rouge to testify before the Louisiana legislature that our Home Rule Charter allows us to run the city as we want to and not as the state legislature tells us. We failed to convince the legislature. The legislature read the New Orleans school board out of office. That was their punishment to Orleans Parish for wanting to start the integration of its schools.

As a result, an organization called Save Our Schools, SOS, was formed with the goal of keeping the schools open. Many of its leaders were League of Women Voters of New Orleans members. The League adopted a program supporting education and it attracted many women who had been in PTAs but felt PTAs weren't moving fast enough to keep schools open and provide information.

Whereas the good people interested in education wanted integration to start in an uptown school in the university area, it was decided for some reason to first integrate downtown. This turned out to be disastrous because people from nearby parishes came in and screamed and it was a very hectic situation.

We had League leaders, working with SOS escorting white children to school, those children who were brave enough to go to the schools with the few black children. The white children wanted to get to school safely. Or, I should say, comfortably because they were going to get there safely. But comfortably was different.

A few years later when a name for a new school was being chosen, the League was lucky to have an opportunity to nominate a member for the school's name. Mildred Osborne did the legal research to keep schools open. She was just one of the League heroes and a downtown school still has her name.

There was also a League of Women Voters study of the schools done during that period and a pamphlet was printed to explain to the public school parents their rights in the field of public education. The pamphlet Know Your Schools was circulated through the PTAs, or wherever the League could reach, to help people understand what was before them in public education.

The schools stayed open, and the League of Women Voters was there in the forefront. We can be very proud of that. It was definitely a success. Our success was proven by the fact that two members of the League of Women Voters, who worked very hard during that period, were elected to the Orleans Parish School Board in later years and served well on the board. One served eight years and one for four years.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in the `60s. Of course we wanted to help people register to vote. That was part of our League mission. The state voter registration application was so complex that people had to be taught how to fill it out. It was unlike today when one goes to an office with helpful employees. It was even hard for people who were highly educated to get registered. League members went to the churches to teach people how to register. I remember going to a Treme area church with Rosa Keller, the League's most prominent community leader who is best known for promoting integration in the city.

That was early in the 1960s. Later, in the mid-`60s, the League of Women Voters got a small grant from the national LWV Education Fund and was able to pull other organizations together to put on a huge registration drive called Operation Registration. It was an effort we couldn't have done by ourselves.

Many things we did were in cooperation with others during that period. The Urban League was very prominent and gave us a great deal of help with our inner city organization and education.

We had an office in Gallier Hall, the old City Hall, with a part-time secretary. The office was a great place for people to get information. We answered the phone every election day from early morning until polls closed providing voter information. Our office was well known in the community and many could easily find their way there for help with registration to vote and for information on city issues.

The national League of Women Voters Education Fund set up training for League of Women Voters all over the country. The training took place in eastern cities and it was about working in the inner cities with citizen education. It was of particular interest to a few New Orleans League members. Even though women still weren't in the workforce as today, it was hard to get knowledgeable people, to work on projects but somehow we always found them. And several of us were willing to go to Washington, DC,. for training and to become educated on the issues and how to provide leadership to carry through a local project.

After these seminars, the League developed a citizen education project to educate people on how to speak out in their own behalf. We became part of the War on Poverty programs that came with President Lyndon Johnson's passing the Civil Rights Act. The federal government began sending money into communities to develop new leadership because segregation had kept people voiceless. New Orleans qualified as a star city for resources during the War on Poverty.

The League of Women Voters, initially, went into the Irish Channel and Ward 9 to talk about organizing and speaking out on issue. We met with small groups, maybe ten or twelve people, or whoever showed up. It would be people who were interested in developing what to do, how to go to City Hall, how to get people registered, how to develop what their needs were before going to City Hall. In other words, learning to speak out on their own behalf. We wanted to let people know they were important and could ask for their needs to be met.

With Poverty Program fund, local leaders picked target areas for concentrate of resources. Official target areas were Central City, the Irish Channel, 9th Ward, maybe Mid-City, probably in all half a dozen areas. The League decided that we would try organizing in the areas that were needy but not targeted. We picked areas in Carrollton running from the Mississippi River to Gert Town, which is across from Xavier University. We asked the Urban League to work with us and they did. They cooperated with us in many ways and did things that we couldn't do.

The national League of Women Voters Education Fund gave us $1000 to start with. We collected close to $4000, which is not much today but we felt rich then. To utilize this money we decided we needed more workers. We applied for and were able to get VISTA volunteers. Some were outstanding.

VISTA volunteers went during the day to talk to neighborhood people. Then we would have follow up at the steering committee meetings with the leadership to determine what we wanted to accomplish and how to do it. Neighbor people made up the steering committee with League members and VISTA volunteers.

We thought we need an office, a place for people in the neighborhood to come and to be able to identify who we were and what we were doing. So we rented a building in a very visible place. We expected to have meetings and various activates there. It turned out that a better use was working with Urban League to have a daycare center. So, it ultimately became a daycare center under the auspices of Urban League.

In the Gert Town area, the citizens decided that their real need was a health center. We tried very hard to get people to go down to City Hall and testify about this need and to speak with the people who represented them on the City Council. We had conversation after conversation on this. I remember meeting with different people at different levels on the issue. Sometimes it wasn't so successful, sometimes it was. After a very long time a Health Center was built and I remember the opening.

What did the community get out of all the League activity? It took lots of time and lots of talk as we looked for neighborhood leaders and we did find them. We certainly got the feeling that people were interested in their neighborhoods. I think we made a difference.

Working through our neighborhood groups allowed us to meet and know the leaders in all of the poverty program neighborhoods and we cooperated with them. We were part of it all. That was why, when the mayor and his advisors decided to have an elected Human Relations Committee, the League ended up actually running the first election. It was because of our connections to city leaders in the Poverty Program. We saw a need League could fulfill and the League volunteered to run the election. We were trusted.

The city community leaders were business people who had been in the background but were still running New Orleans for generations. They established the Metropolitan Area Committee, a new blue ribbon committee, all men (eventually they took women) trying to improve things. They cared what was happening. They persuaded the mayor and the Council to have a Human Relations Committee. It was a controversial idea. But Integration was coming slowly and something needed doing.

I can remember going to the City Hall constantly during that period, up and down the back steps. I didn't bother with the elevators. We had so much involvement with city government when running the election. Three or four League members wrote election laws and planned the whole election. Even though the election didn't cover the whole city, it covered the many neighborhoods where the poverty programs existed.

The League succeeded in putting on the election and we made it really important, big stuff. Our office at Gallier Hall, a fine location to have the office, was easy for citizens to find and get papers to qualify. They ultimately voted in their neighborhoods. We were so successful that the following year when the committee was to be re-elected the League of Women Voters was asked to run the election again. We didn't have to volunteer.

The Human Relations Committee today deals with a huge group of problems and you can read about it on the web. It exists as part of New Orleans government and it has been quite important. It has been quiet, but important and helpful to our community. After the first two elections members were appointed.

I have covered much of League of Women Voters of New Orleans' civil rights involvement. We had some excellent volunteers. I can't praise our members enough. We also had especially high quality leadership in a few of the New Orleans League presidents during the 1960s period.

Jean Reeves was one of them. She was the one who initiated, in the very early 1960s, the writing of a book on local government. It took a lot of effort to be the very first person to do it. Until then there was no way anyone could find out how our local government worked. The publication What's What in New Orleans Government was so successful that it was used in the libraries and at City Hall. We even sold the books to the school board to use in the school system. Ultimately we published updated second and third editions.

There was another burning issue that had been adopted by the League for study in the `50s, which became an action issue in the `60s. The issue was equalization of property tax assessments. New Orleans at that time had seven assessors. Taxation was done in each area according to the wishes and personality of that area's assessor.

The League of Women Voters usual policy was first to educate League members. League leaders decided that our members must understand the property tax situation before taking a stand on the issue. We did a most interesting presentation and came to the conclusion that people did not understand our complex tax system. It was unfair to our schools and to the city government who depended on the property tax to keep them serving the community. It was time for action. League of Women Voters of New Orleans president, representing LWVNO, signed onto a lawsuit for equalization of assessments. The suit didn't succeed, but later suits followed and did have some effect.

Going into the 1970s, New Orleans was a new city, a city with participation in government by both black and white citizens. Black leadership had been identified. It may have been there all the time but it began being identified. Mayor Moon Landrieu, who was elected in the early `70s, integrated the city government for the first time. Black political groups became powerful in a new way. Up until then leadership had been in the churches. In the 1960s it came away from the churches and community people became active and visible in a whole different situation. The city went on trying to solve the segregation problem by getting people to work together. You see remnants of that today because we've never finished our job but we continue to go on with the task.