Local civil rights icons never thought they'd live to see African-American president

Local civil rights icons never thought they'd live to see African-American president

by Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday November 05, 2008, 7:00 PM

Rev. Zebadee Bridges speaks about the joy he felt voting for Barack Obama.

In 1974, Ed Lombard became the first African-American clerk of Orleans Parish criminal court, in charge of the voting machines that had been off limits to many black citizens until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.


He held that office for 29 years until 2003, when he became a judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. Still, every time Lombard steps into a curtained booth, he feels its power.

"It's the only way we can really see and feel and touch change -- through the ballot box, " he said.

Lombard, like many local civil rights leaders and observers, found himself tracing history as Election Day approached. They ushered in Tuesday's election of Barack Obama as the next president with tears of joy, critiques of today's black politicians and a solemn nod to fellow fighters who helped pave the way.

Obama is technically mixed-race, since his mother is white. But to Lolis Elie Sr., 78, a key lawyer to New Orleans civil rights activists, there is no such thing as mixed-race.

"In this country, either you're black or you're white, " he said. And for most of Elie's life, "any traceable amount of black heritage" made you black, he said.

After voting Tuesday, Elie became a nervous wreck. He had "jitters, " he said, like never before.

Lifting a heavy burden

For Mattheo Suarez, 70, voting felt like having a backpack loaded with 25 pounds of bricks fall off his back, he said. Suarez, called "Flukie" by friends, once walked picket lines, worked get-out-the-vote campaigns, and drove dangerous backroads of Mississippi at high speeds to evade Klansmen. All his life, the rules seemed rigged, as if he had to carry that bag of bricks while running a race alongside unburdened white men.

"But after I voted, I saw daylight, " he said. "I was free of the weight and a stress I had been carrying."

Last month, Suarez visited the Rev. Zebadee Bridges, 82, past president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the influential group of ministers that Bridges has led since the deaths of civil rights legends the Rev. A.L. Davis and the Rev. Avery Alexander.

"'Rev, did you ever in your wildest imagination think this could happen in your lifetime?' " Suarez recalled asking Bridges.


As Election Day approached, Bridges steered his electric wheelchair through his 7th Ward home, reveling in joy and disbelief.

Then-impossible dreams

When Bridges was growing up in rural Mississippi, any black man there who had announced he was running for president would've found his house aflame that night, he said. As a child, he and his siblings weren't even allowed to take a public bus to the school 12 miles away, in essence denying them an education, said Bridges, who finished grammar school at night after moving to New Orleans at age 19 to work on the railroad.

"It gives me a lot of joy to know that the Lord let me live long enough to vote for a black president, " Bridges said. "In Mississippi, we never grew up to men. Whites would always call you 'boy' even when you were old enough to be their grandfather."

During recent years, he's seen changes when he visits Mississippi, where his grandchildren now live on his great-grandfather's farmland. He sees interracial couples, he said, young men call him 'sir, ' and his former driveway is now the last stop for a bus from McComb public schools.

Just the sight of it triggers memories of a time when he lived on that land and couldn't even think of going to school. "I watch that yellow bus and I know that we've come a long way, " he said.

Turning to courts

Sybil Morial, then a schoolteacher at Oscar Dunn Elementary in the Desire housing development, successfully sued the state of Louisiana in the early 1960s because public school teachers weren't allowed to join groups that promoted integration.

Though best known as the wife of the city's first black mayor, Ernest "Dutch" Morial, Sybil Morial served the civil rights movement in her own right, through lawsuits and activism, and through the organization she founded in 1963, the Louisiana League of Good Government, a women's voter registration group that prepared black voters for tests designed to block their registration.

In 1967, her husband became Louisiana's first black state legislator since Reconstruction, and by 1978 became New Orleans' first black mayor in an election that lured new black voters in droves. Last month, Morial felt the same excitement as she stood in early voting lines outside City Hall.

Although Obama's campaign was "far more large and important, " parts of the presidential campaign also felt familiar, she said, including criticism that Obama "wasn't black enough."

She recalled her husband's response to that: "I'm as black as any of you: I can't go to the movie house, to the restaurants, to the other places where white people can go. I am black, and therefore I suffer the same way you do and want the same things you want."

In his day, Dutch Morial also developed new campaign tactics, much like Obama, Sybil Morial said: "He went directly to the people instead of sending surrogates, " walking through neighborhoods and spending time in the city's barbershops, barrooms and public housing developments.

"Barack Obama did it his way, gathering strength through modern technology and superb organization and manpower, " she said.

On election night, Morial watched the returns and wept with joy. She tried to imagine what her husband, who died in 1989, would say. "I think he would look back and say, 'Every little victory, every little achievement was building up to this climax, ' " she said.

Feeling grandfather near

As a child, Avis Brock walked by the side of her grandfather, the Rev. Avery Alexander, in marches with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who ate at his house and whom she viewed simply as one of her grandpa's friends.

She felt her grandfather's presence when she voted for Obama on Tuesday at the Dryades YMCA, mere blocks from where he and other ministers from the Consumers' League planned the successful Dryades Street boycott in 1960 against store owners who wouldn't hire black workers.

Her grandfather linked change and voting then, before change became a political buzzword. "He used to tell us, 'If you want to change, you have to vote, ' " she said.

But is a vote for Obama automatically a vote for change? That's unclear to Jerome Smith, director of the Treme Community Center and an outspoken activist who came up through the Congress of Racial Equality, spent time in Southern jails and was badly beaten during the Freedom Rides.

"Obama is not my hero, he's not that tough, " said Smith, who said Obama hasn't been outspoken enough as candidate or a U.S. senator about continued racism in America. Still, Smith stood in early voting lines to vote for for Obama. To his mind, Tuesday's election accomplished one goal: It ended a two-century tradition of white presidents.

"It broke a rhythm, " he said.

Feeding bodies, spirits

During the height of local civil rights struggles, Leah Chase ran Dooky Chase's around the corner from an activists' hub: the home of sisters Oretha and Doris Jean Castle on Tonti Street. She recalled counseling patience to many of the angrier activists of the day.

Over the years, she met many brilliant black people who could have handled high office if the country would have allowed it. But on Tuesday, she voted with confidence, knowing Obama could win.

"I've learned that time makes a difference in what you can do and when you can do it, " she said.

Dooky Chase's became known as a civil rights hotbed in its own right, and Chase has been called the chef to the movement. Even now, she still remembers many of their orders: Big Daddy King, father of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., always wanted barbecue ribs. Civil rights attorney and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall came for her gumbo, the same order she got in February for Obama, who added hot sauce.

"I told him, 'Mr. Obama: You do not put hot sauce in my gumbo, ' " she said.

Ed Lombard, whom Chase remembers as "a steak man, " remembers working around the clock once elected to the office charged with holding fair elections.

"If I failed, I would've been the poster boy for why we shouldn't elect blacks, " he said.

Morial said that her husband felt the same burden: representing his entire race on a public stage. "The expectations were so high and sometimes the ability to deliver was difficult, " she said.

Obama will face that, too, she said. "I suspect he will feel that deep inside, that everyone wants him to cure it all."

Lombard calls it "the Jackie Robinson syndrome: first black. I'm relieved to not talk about the 'first black' anymore, " he said. "There are black people capable of running this country: that debate is now over."

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Katy Reckdahl can be reached at kreckdahl [at] timespicayune [dot] com or 504.826.3396.