NEW ORLEANS — Gathering at their alma mater for a “Three Mayors Panel,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu and former mayors Moon Landrieu and Marc Morial took to the stage Thursday morning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the integration of Jesuit High School.
The consensus among all three men was that while significant progress has been made in the battle for civil rights, there is much more to be done.
Moderator and journalist Bruce Nolan set the context of the Sept. 4, 1962, event for the crowd of current Jesuit students. Nolan described a sense of anxiety and called the era “a battlefield.”
The integration of Catholic schools followed the federally mandated integration of New Orleans’ public schools in 1960.
Moon Landrieu, who graduated from Jesuit in 1948 and oversaw the desegregation of City Hall during his two terms as mayor in 1970-78, said there was a “great feeling of euphoria among others and great anger among others.”
“The past ain’t past yet,” Moon Landrieu told the students, describing his conversations with his great-grandmother, who was 16 years old when Abraham Lincoln was shot; 1962, he said, isn’t that long ago.
Moon Landrieu called African-American slavery and the “Jim Crow laws that engulfed the country most of my lifetime” the two worst things to happen in the country.
He described Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis’ attempts to “thwart the integration of public schools,” threats to withdraw from the union and threats to jail teachers who taught both black and white students.
Moon Landrieu talked about the integration of other schools, and how some white parents were OK with a few black students attending school with their children, but as the ratio flipped, many reached a tipping point and pulled their children out — schools that in 20 years changed from all-white to all-black.
Nolan introduced Morial, a 1976 graduate, by telling the students that when he enrolled as a freshman at Jesuit, his father, Dutch, was already well-known as the state’s first black legislator.
Morial said that academics and athletics attracted to him to Jesuit and that after being among the first black students at Christian Brothers School, he was prepared for the predominately white Jesuit student body. Morial also noted that his parents were on the frontline of the civil rights battle and wanted their children to go to integrated schools.
Mitch Landrieu, a 1978 graduate and friend of Morial while at Jesuit, noted the parallels of their childhoods.
“It was a very tense time,” Mitch Landrieu said. “It was very uncomfortable for African American students here.” He said it got better over time but that it’s “not even close to being over.”
Mitch Landrieu described one of his first memories at the school — being escorted out of class because a lady had come to the school threatening to kill Mitch because of his father’s support for the rights of African Americans.
Morial said that the kids who promoted hate, calling him names and slipping notes into his lockers, were a relatively small group.
One of two African Americans on the football team and the only one on the basketball team, Morial recalled a “sense of loneliness,” especially without places to socialize with the white students outside of school.
In 1974, Morial said there were about 14 African American students out of 1,000. When he graduated, he said there were about 45 African American students at Jesuit.
Today, Morial said there are about 75 African American students at Jesuit and a growing Asian and Hispanic population but all three panelists acknowledged that greater diversity should continue to be a goal.
Morial praised the school for preparing him for his Ivy League education and future and told the students that they would all be leaders.
“I would like to see more African American boys get the opportunity I got,” Morial said.
“Although we have integrated I don’t think it is fair to say we have an integrated school system,” Mitch Landrieu said. For his own children today, Mitch Landrieu acknowledged having to choose between academic excellence and a commitment to integration.
“We are not where we need to be,” he said.
Moon Landrieu said that the Catholic Church could have done more during the most volatile years and acknowledged that the church did not lead the integration but followed the public schools.
He urged students to search for truth, recognize and work through their own prejudices and to allow time for changing perspectives and attitudes as they enter adulthood.