THE COURAGE OF CONVICTIONS
Tensions didn’t resolve completely and, like virtually everywhere in this country, we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, progress came earlier to New Orleans than many other places. That’s due to the courage and integrity of people of good will, both African-American and white.
One of the pioneers of the struggle in New Orleans passed away the other day. Jack Nelson was a white lawyer, a member of the privileged class who could have sat on the sidelines. Instead, he incurred the wrath of his peers by joining a noble cause and lending his personal credibility to able African-American attorneys whose valid arguments otherwise might have been summarily dismissed by the white establishment of the time.
Mr. Nelson defended activists who sat at white-only lunch counters and those who dared to stand up to the Klan. He helped to bring pressure on Tulane University to speed up the desegregation of that institution.
The Times Picayune published a moving obituary in this morning’s paper, which I encourage you to read. It includes some of Mr. Nelson’s own words, including a story that helps to explain what prompted this man to risk so much for people he didn’t know:
I remember one day I was at the park with my two little daughters and they were pulling me to go on the carousel and I was resisting. And finally we were approaching the carousel and I saw a black man standing there with his two daughters and we passed him and we got on the carousel. And as we went around, I watched this fellow as he was standing there, holding his daughters’ hands. And I kept wondering what he was telling them.
They were just standing up there like little statues. They wanted to go on that carousel as much as my daughters did and yet they were just standing there. I kept wondering what would I tell my daughters? No, you can’t go? Well, why can’t we go? That was an important moment in my life: It made me say, “There’s something wrong. This isn’t right.”
I am constantly amazed that the pivotal events of some men’s lives would go completely without notice or thought by most of their contemporaries. What sets the great ones apart is the vision to see what is important and the willingness to do something about it. I practice a profession that includes the skills and position to change the world, and yet so few of us leave any real legacy. People like Jack Nelson put me to shame and make me proud at the same time.