Dreams unrealized

The nearly uniform complexion of New Orleans' victims is as clear an illustration of the failure of the civil rights movement as anything I've ever seen as an attorney for the poor in the city.

Published September 4, 2005 8:26PM (EDT)

I left New Orleans for Oxford at 5:30 in the morning on Aug. 28 with my wife, my best friend, two dogs and a cat in a crappy Volvo sedan. I had spent the night at the top of a 24-foot ladder, drilling plywood into the window frames of the 1850s Greek Revival townhouse that we had resurrected from the brink of collapse over the past three years. We were tired, scared and reluctant to believe that our flight and all of our preparations were vaguely justifiable.

The three of us had moved to New Orleans from New York City four years earlier to do social justice work. Mike and I came to do death penalty work, representing poor people on Louisiana's death row. Nikki, my wife, came to teach art in the city's impoverished public schools. As much as we came to New Orleans to "do good," we also came because we were drawn to the city -- a deeply flawed but beautiful town. Nikki and I would often talk about how New Orleans fit into the pantheon of our most loved objects -- it was a fleur du mal, a profound and elegant flower growing from extreme poverty and struggle.

When French Quarter tourists come to this city, they rarely see beneath the Disneyland Gomorrah that is projected as "N'Awlins," a term I have never heard a local use and a place, as far as I can tell, that I have never been to despite my years in the city. On the occasions when I have ventured onto Bourbon Street, I have seen seemingly average, white, middle-class Americans whooping it up without any thought to the third-world lives of so many of the city's citizens lying right beneath their noses.

How is it that this husband and wife, clad in khaki shorts, feather boa and Mardi Gras beads well out of season, can behold and clap along to a child tap-dancing on the street for money without considering the obvious fact that this is an early school-day afternoon and that the child should be learning to read, not dancing for money? How do they fail to see the crumbling buildings that the city's poor live in when they travel by cab to Commander's Palace from the French Quarter?

I think they look past these things in the same manner travelers in the developing world do, with a passing thought that "the poor will always be among us," or some other comforting platitude. It is the hardhearted view that we all must adopt when confronted with the manifold misery that exists in the world, that the world can't seem to exist without. And perhaps the tourists believe that such misery can be similarly viewed in the American South, rationalizing that, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the South has washed its hands of the stain of slavery, Jim Crow and racism.

In recent months, the media has focused on the racism in the most egregious cases of the past, such as the Edgar Ray Killen trials in Philadelphia, Miss., and the reopening of the Emmett Till case. While justice should be served in these cases, the media focus on these historic events obscures the reality that racism is alive and well here today. If anything, we should be scrutinizing the past to see how little progress has been made since the civil rights era and how the dreams of the great leaders of that day are largely unrealized.

Here in Oxford, and in cities across the South, the New Orleans diaspora watches on television as the city we love floods, burns and is turned upside-down by its fearful citizens. The nearly uniform complexion of the remaining victims is as clear an illustration of the failure of the civil rights movement as anything I have ever seen in my work as a civil rights and social justice attorney.

New Orleans has the worst major public education system in the country and one of the highest poverty rates of any American city -- how could a couple of generations be adequate to endow complete personal freedom and mobility to this population? A blog for displaced New Orleanians stated that the "animals" have chosen to loot the city, and thus we should punish them by abandoning them in the cesspool. Perhaps such a threat would have more sting if it had not already been so completely delivered on since the white urban exodus from New Orleans after the civil rights era and, more recently, last Sunday night.

While it may be easy for American tourists to turn a blind eye to their own third world, a steady stream of young Australians and Europeans have been coming to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and the rest of the deep South for years to serve the needs of the indigent people throughout these states. As the co-director and recruiter for Reprieve U.S., an organization that sponsors and places volunteers at poverty law offices, it is always mildly surprising and embarrassing to me to hear these bright and passionate people explain that they are applying either to work for the poor in the criminal justice system in Texas or to help build shelters in Guatemala, and are unable to determine where the needs are greater. What seems most shocking to our volunteers is the complete disregard that the U.S. government has paid our clients throughout their lives, failing to provide housing, healthcare, education and other basic needs.

Given that our government, the richest in the world, has failed to provide the basic tools for its citizens for generations, we should not now be surprised that the poor and stranded in New Orleans have no reasonable expectation that the government will do anything to serve them and have taken things into their own hands. Perhaps if the government had made adequate investment in our citizens and our city's infrastructure in the first place, we could have avoided this mess.

However, that did not happen, so instead I hope that in the event that my house is still standing and above water, someone has the good sense to loot it; there are 20 gallons of bottled water in the kitchen, some food in the cupboard and a bunch of old Atlantic Records LPs and CDs with the great rhythm and blues of New Orleans.

The patron saint of my temporary hometown, William Faulkner, said of Dilsey, the strong black servant of "The Sound and the Fury": "They endured." I trust the same will be true of New Orleans and the half a million people who, while struggling, have always been proud to call it home. I think we can be certain that New Orleans, a city that has had more than its fair share of the strange fruits of American racism, has not grown its last beautiful flower of evil.

By Billy Sothern

Billy Sothern is a New Orleans writer and attorney living in Oxford, Miss., until he can return home. His nonprofit, Reprieve, accepts donations to support the organization's many indigent clients who are now homeless and without money or credit.

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