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New Orleans after the Promises

Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society

Kent B. Germany

Publication Year: 2007

In the 1960s and 1970s, New Orleans experienced one of the greatest transformations in its history. Its people replaced Jim Crow, fought a War on Poverty, and emerged with glittering skyscrapers, professional football, and a building so large it had to be called the Superdome. New Orleans after the Promises looks back at that era to explore how a few thousand locals tried to bring the Great Society to Dixie. With faith in God and American progress, they believed that they could conquer poverty, confront racism, establish civic order, and expand the economy. At a time when liberalism seemed to be on the wane nationally, black and white citizens in New Orleans cautiously partnered with each other and with the federal government to expand liberalism in the South.

As Kent Germany examines how the civil rights, antipoverty, and therapeutic initiatives of the Great Society dovetailed with the struggles of black New Orleanians for full citizenship, he defines an emerging public/private governing apparatus that he calls the "Soft State": a delicate arrangement involving constituencies as varied as old-money civic leaders and Black Power proponents who came together to sort out the meanings of such new federal programs as Community Action, Head Start, and Model Cities. While those diverse groups struggled--violently on occasion--to influence the process of racial inclusion and the direction of economic growth, they dramatically transformed public life in one of America's oldest cities. While many wonder now what kind of city will emerge after Katrina, New Orleans after the Promises offers a detailed portrait of the complex city that developed after its last epic reconstruction.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

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pp. ix-xii

I was born and raised in Louisiana. Like most people from there, my roots go back several generations—at least four in my case. In August and September 2005, I watched the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita from an upscale university town in Virginia and felt like an exile. I want to express my deepest sympathy for the people along the Gulf...

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Introduction: Something New for the South?

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pp. 1-18

It took less than a week to end New Orleans as we knew it. The wind came and the water came and the levees could not keep them away. In August 2005, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain returned to long-ago shores, and people had to head to higher ground. Hurricane Katrina made nomads out of over a half-million people, and it eroded faith...

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Part One: A War on Poverty, Segregation, and Alienation, 1964–1974

Locally, the politics of the Great Society became a matter of calculating black potential and black peril. There are many examples of both, but two instances stand out, serving as the symbolic opening and closing of this history. One involved a little black girl named Ruby Bridges, the other a young black man named Mark Essex...

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1. A European-African-Caribbean-American-Southern City

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pp. 21-37

New Orleans began in 1718 as a gamble made by French aristocrats. In time, the decision to create a European community in a subtropical river delta devastated thousands, perhaps millions, of lives, but built a civilization that guided the growth of the New World. In a pattern repeated throughout the city's history, mercantile dreams beat out the...

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2. Establishing the Early War on Poverty

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pp. 38-58

In the 1960s, Louisiana was home to some of the least educated, most poorly paid, and most persistently violent citizens in the United States. The Bayou State led the nation in overall illiteracy and had the fourth highest black illiteracy rate. In New Orleans, 35 percent of residents had less than an eighth grade education. Statewide, infants died at a rate...

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3. Building Community Action

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pp. 59-82

Community action was supposed to empower the supposedly powerless. One of the drafters of the Economic Opportunity Act, William B. Cannon, intended it to be "a method of organizing local political action," not just a means of repackaging social services. Adam Yarmolinsky, one of the chief architects of the poverty legislation and a speechwriter for...

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4. Challenging the Establishment and the Color Line

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pp. 83-103

In 1966 and 1967, local organizers used community action to build political power, and they turned the social policy process into an extension of civil rights activism. Challenges to the "establishment" helped to shift bureaucratic influence from white progressives to black neighborhood leaders. At the forefront were neighborhood women who wanted better living...

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5. Making Better and Happier Citizens

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pp. 104-125

While community action was helping to build structures for black political inclusion after Jim Crow, an equally important question was being worked out at an intellectual level: Why should black residents be included as full citizens? The answer, judging from the ideas of local progressives, was that alienated and segregated people reduced...

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6. Defusing the Southern Powder Keg

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pp. 126-150

Between 1963 and 1968, the United States experienced an urban crisis. In over 250 American cities, at least 334 episodes of urban unrest erupted, nearly 90 percent of them between 1967 and 1968. During those six years, approximately 250 African Americans were killed, 8,000 were injured, and 50,000 were arrested. A sizeable portion of the injuries and...

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7. Making Workers and Jobs

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pp. 151-164

In the middle and late 1960s, the unemployment rate in the United States was at one of its lowest points in history. Roughly 3.5 percent of Americans were reported to be out of work. In New Orleans that number was only slightly higher at 4.2 percent. For New Orleans's black neighborhoods, however, the rate hovered near 10 percent, and the underemployment...

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8. Making Groceries

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pp. 165-179

They came for groceries. In August 1969, a reported three hundred welfare recipients, most of whom were female African Americans, made their way over land and water to the New Orleans Civic Center complex to collect on an offer of free food and shoes. At least, that is how the day started. The rest of the story is a bit cloudy, but, after a short while, the...

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9. Making a Model New Orleans [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 180-208

In 1965 and 1966, several black neighborhood leaders complained that their areas were ignored by a disinterested Mayor Victor Hugo Schiro. By mid-April 1968, however, target-area residents had forced City Hall to take notice. Victor Schiro finally targeted the "slums" as a serious problem. According to the mayor, target areas contained only 25 percent of...

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Part Two: Black Power and Dixie’s Democratic Moment, 1968–1974

A militant black activist stood in front of his house and handed a sack of beer to his friends. Two New Orleans police officers witnessed the exchange. Using the police department's "Stop and Frisk" policy, they rushed in to demand that the man, Lionel McIntyre, reveal the contents of his container. Someone in his group demanded a search warrant, to...

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10. The Thugs United and the Politics of Manhood

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pp. 211-223

During the late 1960s, New Orleans experienced an intense political transformation. It was the democratic moment that black leaders had wanted for so long. The conditions for creating something new for the South were finally set. Competition on the streets, in the bureaucracies, and at the polls would determine what kind of city emerged from the...

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11. Women, Welfare, and Political Mobilization

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pp. 224-245

Generalizing about men and women is dangerous business. In the late 1960s, however, a few trends in local black activism do stand out. In particular, organizations and/or activities that focused on black capitalism or political mobilization (e.g., negotiating construction contracts, running for public office) were almost always led by men. As advocates of black...

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12. Acronyms, Liberalism, and Electoral Politics, 1969–1971

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pp. 246-270

The election season of 1969–1970 was a test of racial liberalism. Black voters, primarily organized by neighborhood councils and political groups that this study refers to as the Acronyms, put the racially liberal Moon Landrieu in the mayor's office. Seven years after the New Orleans Police Department dragged civil rights activists out of City Hall by their...

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13. Panthers, Snipers, and the Limits of Liberalism

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pp. 271-295

In 1964, a half-decade before Moon Landrieu's election, New Orleans Urban League director J. Harvey Kerns had hoped that racial liberalism could produce "something new for the South." At the dawn of the new decade, New Orleans seemed poised to do that, or at least to end the Dixie defined by Jim Crow. As several moments of violence...

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Conclusion: Prelude to Katrina

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pp. 296-313

In New Orleans, keeping faith in progress can be hard to do. Many people there have found it easier to put their confidence in things unseen and in life beyond life. In 1973, the Essex episode demonstrated that one man with a few dozen bullets could shut down a city at one of the most optimistic moments in its history. Thirty-two years later, Hurricane Katrina...


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pp. 315-334


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pp. 335-400


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pp. 401-429


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pp. 431-460

E-ISBN-13: 9780820342580
E-ISBN-10: 0820342580
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820325439
Print-ISBN-10: 0820325430

Page Count: 488
Illustrations: 14 b&w photos, 5 tables, 1 map
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • New Orleans (La.) -- Politics and government -- 20th century.
  • Poverty -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- History -- 20th century.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Social policy.
  • Liberalism -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- History -- 20th century.
  • Political participation -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- History -- 20th century.
  • Citizenship -- Louisiana -- New Orleans -- History -- 20th century.
  • New Orleans (La.) -- Economic conditions -- 20th century.
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