Change doesn’t come easily. It typically requires great risk by people willing to take on the status quo against daunting odds. Louisiana recently lost two agents of change with the passings of civil rights lawyer Lolis Edward Elie and former state Rep. Ralph Miller.
Elie fought in the trenches of the local civil rights movement, often representing clients that no other attorney would take. Though not large in stature, Elie had a lion’s heart. “He was fearless,” recalled longtime friend Don Hubbard, a businessman, veteran politico and a former leader in the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of Elie’s early clients.
Miller, also an attorney, worked the legislative halls pushing bills that opened local and state government to public view for the first time. They included strengthening Louisiana’s Sunshine Law (open meetings), Public Records Act and campaign finance disclosure laws. When Miller arrived in Baton Rouge in 1968 as a freshman lawmaker from his hometown of Norco (where he lived until his death), “open government” was a radical concept. Today, no investigative reporter could function without those laws.
[jump] Elie won his cases by heroically taking on the forces of segregation and inequality in the courts. Miller disarmed his legislative opponents with his outsized personality and self-effacing humor. Both men understood that the road toward progress is neither straight nor smooth.
“Lolis always tried to bring out the best in people - gently if he could, but sternly if necessary,” Hubbard recalled. “My whole life I have thanked him for teaching me to believe in myself. He did that for a lot of people.”
Appellate Judge Edwin Lombard remembers working in a 1967 voter registration drive Elie organized in Central City. Their efforts led to the election of Louisiana’s first black legislator since Reconstruction - Dutch Morial, who later became New Orleans’ first black mayor. “Lolis changed history,” Lombard said.
Elie and his longtime friends shared an inside joke about their civil rights days. “We’d say, ‘What’s the big deal with walking on water?’” Hubbard said. “The answer is it’s no big deal - as long as you stay in the boat. But when you get out of the boat, it becomes a very big deal. Lolis convinced a lot of folks to get out of the boat.”
Miller, who served as a lawmaker for 22 years, was a member of the “Young Turks” in the Louisiana House. They pioneered the notion of an independent Legislature and in 1972 elected a House Speaker - Rep. Bubba Henry - who was not the governor’s choice. In contrast to the current crop of lawmakers, Miller and his colleagues understood the importance of relationships. Even when they fought, they remained friends and treated each other with respect.
“Ralph loved to laugh and to make others laugh, and he lived his life in the service of others and being in the middle of everything,” said his son, state Rep. Greg Miller, R-Norco, in eulogizing his father last week.
In their own distinct ways, Lolis Edward Elie and Ralph Miller changed Louisiana for the better. They will be missed.