Of all the black political organizations in New Orleans, few can match the historic success and clout of SOUL -- the Southern Organization for Unified Leadership. Yet, in the past two years, SOUL has suffered a string of setbacks.

Most recently, SOUL saw a split among some of its top players and the expected (as of this writing) defeat of its newest star, Terrie Carrie Guerin, by former Saints defensive star Pat Swilling. Officially, SOUL took no position in the special legislative election in eastern New Orleans -- not even in the runoff -- but that amounts to a forfeit in what has been SOUL's base.

SOUL, once the region's most sought-after black political group, is on the ropes. How that happened is a lesson in politics, New Orleans style.

Formed in 1966 at the Battleground Missionary Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward, SOUL began as a coalition of neighborhood groups hoping to elect the first African-Americans to political office in the Ninth Ward. It succeeded in helping Earl Amedee Jr. to become the first black member of the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee.

In 1969, Moon Landrieu was elected mayor with overwhelming support from the black community, and SOUL played a major role in his victory. A young man named Sherman Copelin, who was not initially a SOUL member, landed the job of Model Cities Director, and he soon thereafter joined the SOUL team.

Businessman Don Hubbard, one of the shrewdest political operatives around, became chairman of SOUL by the mid-'70s; he has presided over the organization for more than 25 years. SOUL helped elect Edwin Edwards as governor in 1971, and EWE said on election night that he could not have won without SOUL's help.

The group came to control -- or significantly influence -- the elections of several City Council seats, two state senators, three or more state representatives, an assessor, a congressman and several mayors and governors. SOUL leaders also worked in campaigns to elect African-Americans in several other cities.

But nothing lasts forever.

Progress has brought a new brand of politics -- and politicians -- to black precincts.

And, of course, success can go to some people's heads.

Several years ago, when Copelin became part of a group that hoped to build an auto track in eastern New Orleans, a feud erupted between Copelin and state Sen. Jon Johnson, another SOUL leader in whose district the track was to be developed. Johnson had concerns about the proposal, and he refused to back it. The deal fell through, and it caused a bitter rift between the two old allies.

Hubbard and others (including Mayor Marc Morial) tried to patch things up, but the truce didn't last.

Copelin lost his House seat in 1999 to the Rev. Leonard Lucas, a fiery Ninth Ward preacher who pounced on Copelin for not living in the district. Johnson had a tough opponent of his own, but

he survived.

Last year, a special City Council election saw Cynthia Willard-Lewis defeat Johnson's (and SOUL's) anointed candidate, Guerin, in a close contest.

Copelin attempted a comeback in the special election against Guerin, Swilling and a handful of others this year, but he ran third. More important, SOUL was neutralized as Johnson backed Guerin against Copelin. Hubbard was among many who begged Copelin not to run again, but the former lawmaker couldn't resist the siren's song of electoral politics. Copelin ran a dismal third.

Now, with Swilling's anticipated win over the past weekend, Johnson is the last SOUL survivor in the Ninth Ward -- and he's in the crosshairs of a new coalition of independent black leaders that includes Swilling, Lucas and state Rep. Cedric Richmond. Look for one of them to oppose Johnson in 2003.

SOUL is on the ropes, no doubt about it.

Then again, all good Christians know that the soul never dies.