Friday, March 10, 2006


The history of race relations in New Orleans is as unique as everything else about the city. Perhaps it is because of the history of free persons of color even in the evil days of slavery, or perhaps it is because of the fluid boundaries between neighborhoods in the city, that saw predominantly black blocks next to predominantly white blocks, but New Orleans dealt with the civil rights struggle earlier than most cities in the South.

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.


Blogger kristina said...

Keep working to change the world! In the quote I hear:

"when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people ."

Thanks for keeping the bitterness at bay.

3/11/06, 11:59 PM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...


Thanks for the link to one of the great expressions on the thirst for freedom that has ever been put down on paper. The similarity between Mr. Nelson's and Dr. King's quotes escaped me until you brought it up, but the coincidence seems fitting.

3/12/06, 8:39 AM  

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