In New Orleans, Once Again, the Irony of Southern History

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Mr. Morris is a historian at the University of Texas at Arlington, and the author of books and articles on the history of the South. He is completing a book on the environmental and social history of the Lower Mississippi Valley, including New Orleans.

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Once again the entire country is confronted with the legacy of Reconstruction.

It is too simple to chalk the tragedy that continues to unfold in New Orleans to the force of nature, or to an unfathomable God. Hurricanes, like earthquakes, tornadoes, eruptions, and tsunamis, do come, but who or what sends them is only half the story. Such disasters whatever their origin smash into worlds of our making. What they do when they make landfall, what they meet when they reach the coast, is largely up to us. In the case of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina hit a city of intractable poverty, in which the most desperately poor are African American. It also hit a city that was largely defenseless precisely because it is black and poor. And because its once powerful white citizenry has largely vanished.

In the decade following the Civil War, the white business and political leaders of New Orleans and Louisiana begged the federal government to take the lead in sealing the city off from the waters that surrounded and all too often inundated it. These same men had just fought a war against the United States government, they liked to tell themselves, to protect states’ rights, and they could not wait for the occupying army to pack up and leave. The irony in asking for federal money, expertise, and leadership in controlling the Mississippi, and in admitting that the state of Louisiana was simply not up to the task, was probably not lost on them. But the war over state’s rights, if that’s what it was, was behind them. What they and the nation needed in 1866 was to get the cotton and sugar plantations up and running, and to safeguard their region’s largest port. To accomplish that white leaders in New Orleans and surrounding plantations needed safety from flooding and they needed certain control over their predominantly black laborers. The first required federal assistance, the second required the federal government to back off efforts to assist the former slaves.

Over the next two decades they succeeded in getting both. In 1877 the new Republican administration of Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the army from the Southern states and abandoned the former slaves to white “redeemers,” as they were called, because they redeemed the South for the Democratic Party and for white supremacy. But in the bargain that settled the disputed election of 1876, Louisiana demanded and got a promise of federal leadership in flood control. Over the next half century, the federal government worked to protect the land and businesses of whites, who in turn used their control over the land to control black laborers. The great flood of 1927 momentarily made visible the descendants of the former slaves. But when Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, visited the scene and empathized with victims—an act that helped put him into the White House the next year—he reached out to whites. Black folks were disfranchised.

The black population of New Orleans in slavery and freedom has largely been poor and powerless. Their city was protected from flooding, however, so long as white leaders had clout, which they had back when cotton and sugar mattered, and when the Solid South of white Democrats ruled Congress. Louisiana did not vote for Hoover, but that did not matter. Southern Democrats ruled Congress. Hoover needed them more than they needed him.

Civil Rights destroyed the Democratic Party in the South, as whites fled to the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The demise of cotton and sugar, and the end of seniority privileges in Congress, meant that white political flight in Louisiana brought little to the Republican Party. The Southern states that matter most are those filled with migrants from the North, namely, Texas and Florida. Louisiana, and within that state New Orleans most of all, is a place of poor blacks abandoned since Reconstruction to powerful plantation interests who protected them by default when protecting the plantations. But Louisiana’s whites no longer have any clout.

Civil Rights, it turns out, did little to give power to New Orleans’s black population. In the early 1990s the Clinton Administration overhauled welfare. It was part of a Democratic political strategy to ward off conservative Republicans whose campaigns played on latent fears of vicious black rapists and welfare moms, an angry politics energized by outright white supremacist populists, such as Metairie’s David Duke. At the same time Louisiana’s leaders began to express concerns about New Orleans’s vulnerability to flooding. Fears grew with the 1993 floods in the central Mississippi Valley, though the lower valley was spared that year, and following a series of devastating hurricanes that collided with the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

The Clinton strategy failed to secure the Democrats against the Republicans. As in 1876, Louisiana in the contested election of 2000 helped to put another Republican in the White House, a man who, like Hayes, promised drastic reduction of federal intrusion into state affairs. Just as in 1876, Louisiana once again sought an exception to the states’ rights philosophy it otherwise espoused: massive federal funding for flood control. What changed between then and now was what Louisiana politicians could not see clearly. They no longer mattered. In 1876 Louisiana was a player, one of the states (along with Florida and South Carolina) that delayed the election of Hayes. New Orleans, in addition to federally administered flood control, held out for a transcontinental railroad, which it eventually got.

Louisiana did not put George W. Bush in the White House, nor did it later hand his party control of Congress. Florida did. Texas did. When Louisiana’s leaders asked George W. Bush for funds to shore up New Orleans’s defenses against the waters that surround the city, the president turned them down. There was nothing they could do. They had, after all, signed on to a political philosophy and Republican agenda of tax cuts and minimal federal intervention in state affairs. They had agreed with the Republican and Democratic Parties when they cried out against the special privileges of affirmative action, welfare, and aid to families with dependent children. They agreed, too, with a Republican Party that measures worth in terms of market value. No corporation came forward with a plan to build better levees around New Orleans, and by the logic of the Bush administration, therefore they couldn’t be worth building.

New Orleans and Louisiana might have gone a different route over a century ago. White leaders might have linked the future prosperity of their city and state to the prosperity of the former slaves. Had they done so then, black and white might stand today united, as a real political force to be reckoned with. Together, they might have demanded and received the protection they so desperately needed. Over much of the last century, whites in New Orleans gambled that they could build a society of white privilege and black disfranchisement, and do so with the help of the rest of the nation. Tragically, that is exactly what happened. But they did not see the day when black powerlessness would drag them down too. Sure, the white folks of St. Charles Avenue were able to drive their BMWs out of the city as Katrina approached. We will hear a lot over the coming weeks about how whites survived the storm just fine, while blacks lost everything. But that isn’t quite true. More whites than blacks will have homes to return to. But their city will be gone, unlikely to return. As major industries announce divestment and departure—petroleum companies have begun to say they will not return to New Orleans—affluent whites will lose too.

We will also hear a lot about the natural environment of New Orleans, how it is to blame for the disaster, and people to the extent that they live there. A good case can be made that New Orleans ought never to have been built, or rebuilt after the fires, floods, and hurricanes that have devastated it in the past. The environment around New Orleans is probably no more unsuitable for urban development than south Florida. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert questioned the wisdom and worth of rebuilding New Orleans. No doubt many around the nation share his sentiments. It is hard to imagine he or anyone else would make similar remarks about San Francisco or Los Angeles, were they devastated by earthquake and fire.

New Orleans wasn’t built just on a swamp. It was built, too, on the backs of black laborers. White supremacy helped make New Orleans an important place. In recent decades it has become a curiosity of little real import. If the city never recovers, it won’t be just because of the natural environment. It will be because long ago the whites of New Orleans, and whites in Washington and around the nation, made a bargain with the devil of white supremacy, and now they, we, will have now lost it all.

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    More Comments:

    Chris Morris - 3/8/2006

    What made New Orleans different from Atlanta, Dallas, et al. was not its bad race relations--they were plenty bad in plenty of places--but the historic links between race, flood control, and federalism. New Orleans was willing to embrace change in certain areas, for example, by putting aside deep antipathy for the federal government and inviting the feds in to control the river. For their part, the feds were happy to assist Louisiana white landowners with flood control at the very time they withdrew from Reconstruction and let African Americans across the South fend for themselves. The legacy of those decisions was, I think, visible in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There is no history of help for poor African Americans in New Orleans, as is the case in many places. There is, however, a history of federal flood control, so long as the Louisiana white establishment had political clout, and so long as they had the clout to protect their own interests all citizens of the city, black and white, benefitted, albeit to varying degrees. But the political leaders of New Orleans no longer have any clout in Washington. That's very clear. They are no longer in a position to save their own city, black and white, the way they used to, and the feds don't seem to care. If the feds don't care about New Orleans blacks, they don't care any more about New Orleans whites either. That's the irony of the history. If, however, blacks and whites were to unite politically, together they might be able to wrench more out of Washington, but doing that means fighting a lot of history. We'll see what happens in the mayoral race on April 22.

    Brent Chesson - 3/1/2006

    Is the basic argument here that "white supremacy" was the main nail in the New Orleans/Louisiana economic and political coffin ? (was news to me that elites of Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Miami were so inclusive, generous and progressive towards brown and black folk). The New Orleans elite has a long history of failure to embrace change with anything unfamiliar(people, ideas, industries)and became an economic sideshow (no surprises here, in some ways it started in 1870s.

    Jim Hutt - 9/9/2005

    The last paragraph of Dr. Morris' article says it all, and says it with bold honesty and precision. I only wish our politicians possesed that same integrity, knowledge and wherewithall, and could mix it with some empathy. Unfortunately, their 'strict father' political position does not allow for empathy. Trent Lott is the poster child for this position, second only to the president himself. I fear that those whose lives were swallowed by Katrina died in vain, just like the troops have perished in Iraq, and for reason that are not all that dissimiliar.

    cynthia melrose - 9/4/2005

    How about human history? In just about every major city, not only in the US, but scattered all over the world, we would have seen and heard of very similar scenes had their areas been flooded.
    Does this article imply that there are only delapidated housing projects filled with black people in the southern united states? Are there no large prisons in New York and other states in the north in which the predominantly black population might be sent out to do farm work?
    Maybe it is the irony that the southern US gets so much attention while the rest of the world, including the northern US, has contributed equally, in some places more than, in the suppression of black populations.
    Generally, people just can not get enough of the idea of black people in a poor and pathetic state.
    For example, If "80%" of the population of New Orleans was evacuated before the storm hit, and "70%" of the population was black, than it is extremely plausible that many if not most of the black population were prepared to an extent beyond just evacuation but also having secured comfortable shelter with friends, family, etc.
    Why is this scenario ignored? Would these people be "sellouts" or are they just irrelevant?
    Or are over 200,000 black people stranded or dead in New Orleans while the other 150,000 are at the domes? Does that seem more plausible?
    Are everyone of those people in the water, in their houses, in the crowds at the stadium or shelters complaining and feeling victimized by white people? Or do some have a different, more intelligent, complex, and realistic view of what they have and are experiencing?
    I am not saying the majority of the people, but the majority of people are rarely as strong as they could be under any circumstances. But there are always some who are as strong as they need be to remain civilized and individual. There are those who do not see themselves as the object of white pity, or of a group called the "poor and desperate" ones that can only depend on government for, not only their welfare, but after Katrina, for their very lives.

    Lastly.... why, when historically speaking, would the "greatest slave revolt in American history," occuring in New Orleans in 1811, be ignored?
    I mean, it was supposedly the largest slave revolt(500 people)in US history and it happened in the same area that is being given a racially historic treatment within this article.