Dutch Morial: New Orleans Elects Black Mayor

Black and white photo of Dutch Morial. wearing eyeglass, a button-down shirt, and tie, sitting and leaning to his left

Southern Exposure

The cover features two photos arranged vertically, of a crumbling Southern farmhouse and one of various commercial products made in the South

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 1, "Packaging the New South." Find more from that issue here.

When Judge Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial was elected “the first black mayor” of this South Coast city November 13, 1977, political observers all around the country sat up to take notice. 

New Orleans is the nation’s fourth blackest city (relative to percent of total population), and the largest and most powerful city in the third blackest state in the country. When he took over the reins of the nation’s second largest port — the Southern terminus of the mid-continent grain export/oil import traffic carried by the Mississippi River — Dutch Morial became perhaps the country’s most powerful elected black official. 

The true significance of Morial’s November victory can really be understood only in the context of the history of Afro-American involvement in the city’s political and cultural life. African slaves were first imported into the state of Louisiana, then a French colony, after Indian slavery was abolished in 1719. By 1724, colonial administrators had finished compiling the Code Noir, a document outlining the mutual rights and obligations of Louisiana’s masters and slaves. By comparison to conditions in Anglo- American colonial areas, the results of the Code Noir were relatively progressive. All slaves were required to be baptized in the Catholic Church, establishing common cultural ties between blacks and whites in Louisiana that were closer than those anywhere else in the South - ties that were preserved through the Civil War until separate, black Catholic parishes began to be formed with the consent of the Archbishop of New Orleans in 1897. Colonial-era slaves were permitted to retain a good many of their own cultural traditions as well, and in New Orleans they were allowed Sunday afternoons off to gather in what was then called Congo Square to dance the bamboula to their own music, forming a unique milieu which helps explain why jazz originated here rather than in, say, Savannah or Charleston. 

Most importantly, the Code Noir also regulated the conditions under which slaves could be set free, and defined the rights and protections which freed slaves enjoyed. The year of the publication of the Code Noir was, therefore, the year of the first “people of color,” or gens de couleur, and the beginning of the black Creole culture that would spawn Dutch Morial two and a half centuries later. 

Catholic and often well-educated, the “high yellow” interracial Creoles of New Orleans were still shunned by whites after the Civil War, and in turn, they shunned the darker blacks. The Creoles were concentrated in the city’s Seventh Ward, near the French Quarter, while the darker blacks remained across town. But over the years, the different groups have become more or less amalgamated into a large and diverse black community — still noticeably lighter than any other American urban black community — with its own banks and universities and political leaders. 

Dutch Morial, the latest of these leaders, was born in the Faubourg Marigny of a seamstress mother and a cigar-maker father, both of whom still spoke French when he was a child. Nicknames are a common part of any French background in Louisiana, and they are usually handed out at a very young age. As Dutch Morial told a reporter a few years back, “I think some neighbor gave it to me — maybe because I was wooden-headed?” 

Hard-headed, for sure. After graduating from Catholic Xavier University, New Orleans’ black Creole training ground, Morial set out to become the first black graduate of LSU’s Law School. He entered the same class with Robert Collins, a local magistrate and political leader who hopes to become the first black federal judge in the South — and Crescent City political yarn-spinners insist that the ambitious Morial raced through school so he wouldn’t have to share the “first graduate” honors with Collins. 

Morial returned to New Orleans in 1954 to rejoin the law practice of the late A.P. Tureaud, the city’s first black attorney and the mayor-elect’s chief mentor. Tureaud had been a cofounder of the Orleans Parish Progressive Voters League, the city’s first modern black political organization, and staff attorney for the NAACP. 

Morial started in Tureaud’s office as a clerk in 1951, just in time to pitch in on the lawsuit that eventually desegregated New Orleans’ public schools, and he never slowed down. In subsequent years, Morial’s NAACP-financed lawsuits desegregated the restaurants at New Orleans’ airport, downtown hotels, and the city’s taxicabs. The day LSU opened its New Orleans branch campus (now the University of New Orleans), Morial filed suit to integrate it, too. 

Eventually, he was elected president of the local NAACP chapter, and increased its membership from 2,000 to 7,000 in three years. In one of the most stirring moments in the history of the local civil rights movement, Morial tried to desegregate the hiring practices of businesses along Dryades Street, the main drag through Central City, New Orleans’ largest ghetto. When merchants refused, Morial helped organize a march of 15,000 people on City Hall, the largest demonstration in city history. On another occasion, he invited Thurgood Marshall to town, but the city refused to rent him the Municipal Auditorium, which faces onto the old Congo Square. Morial filed suit again and won. His opponent in that skirmish was moderate Mayor deLesseps “Chep” Morrison, whose son, Toni, was an unsuccessful candidate against Morial in the 1977 election’s first mayoralty primary last summer. 

In yet another successful case, Morial took the state to court when it passed a law prohibiting teachers from joining the NAACP. His plaintiff in the case was his wife, Sybil, a teacher and a well-known activist in her own right. Mrs. Morial, the daughter of a wealthy physician, was a childhood friend of UN Ambassador Andrew Young — and his date to the senior prom. 

In 1967, Morial became the first black member of the Louisiana House of Representatives since Reconstruction. He led the fight to lower the voting age to eighteen, and when Governor John McKeithen appointed him to be the sole black member of the Louisiana delegation to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Morial responded by filing suit and winning seats for other black delegates. Governor McKeithen, a racial moderate who evidently appreciated political spunk, made Morial a judge in Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in 1970. In 1972, Judge Morial was overwhelmingly elected to the Louisiana Court of Appeals, making him Louisiana’s highest ranking black official and the South’s highest ranking black judge. From there he mapped out his race for the mayor’s office. 

There had been one major disappointing defeat for Morial in this long string of superlatives. In 1969, he ran for New Orleans councilman-at-large, and even made it into the second primary. He lost the election by a scant four percent margin to Joe DiRosa. Ironically, it was Councilman Joe DiRosa that Judge Dutch Morial finally beat to become the city’s first black mayor. 

New Orleans’ banana republic politics may not be as sleazy as the political life of other American cities — but it is assuredly more openly sleazy. For the last eight years, the major domo of New Orleans sleaze has been Major Maurice “Moon” Landrieu. His angelic reputation in other parts of the country is directly proportional to how far away from the city you are. Seen in the shadows of the scandal-ridden, inefficient and financially disastrous Superdome, Moon Landrieu’s reputation is well-nigh unprintable. During his freshman term in the state legislature, he was the only white member to vote against one mindless segregation law after another; and he did win election eight years ago with ninety-seven percent of the black vote. So he’s not exactly dumb. Just sleazy. 

Landrieu started out his legal career representing arrested employees or associates of the pinball company that paid his way through law school. After his election as mayor, he promptly devised a series of urban policies whose sole beneficiaries were his major campaign contributors. The Superdome/convention/tourist industrial complex in New Orleans is now dominated by Landrieu cronies. Of the three largest hotels in town, all built since he came into office, one was financed from a sheriffs gambling connections, another was built over public air rights without legal authorization, and the third got the contract to manage the publicly owned Superdome. Landrieu’s campaign finance chairman got the airport limousine franchise. The historic French market was ravaged to make a tourist shopping center, still half-vacant, and most of the Central Business District was bulldozed in anticipation of the high-rise hotels and office buildings which never materialized. Worst of all, Landrieu has handed over to Dutch Morial a city in the worst financial straits since Reconstruction. 

While Landrieu and Morial exhibit professional cordiality in public, their political styles could not possibly be more different. Take, for example, some of the back-room deals which characterized the first mayoralty primary. 

Landrieu, who had backed Morial for councilman-at-large in 1969, declared his intention to remain neutral in the mayor’s race. But shortly before the election, he dramatically announced his support for Toni Morrison, son of former Mayor Chep Morrison, Landrieu’s mentor. Morrison, the Uptown Establishment’s preferred candidate, also started out in the state legislature representing a district half black and half white. He has defeated black candidates before by drawing on substantial black support. “We did it the last time, and we can do it again,” Morrison’s campaign promised. 

“No, we didn’t do it last time and we can’t do it again,” retorted Morial, who says he still has in his possession Mayor Morrison’s denunciatory letter from the Thurgood Marshall incident. Morrison refused to back Morial in the second primary. 

Meanwhile, State Sen. Kat Kiefer — long-time political foe of Landrieu who had investigated the dome scandal — entered the race with the backing of the maritime industry, the city’s largest, and a considerable number of black leaders. Kiefer, a Ninth Ward street brawler with a history of public drunkenness and assault, eventually became a partner in this city’s largest law firm. Kiefer and Morrison both waged slick, wellfinanced campaigns, and had either made it into the second primary with Morial, one of them might have been elected. 

But shortly before the first primary election, Councilman Joe DiRosa, the only other major white candidate, pulled a political stunt unprecedented even for Louisiana. A long-time critic of the local private utility monopoly, New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (NOPSI controls gas, electricity and transit), DiRosa mailed every registered voter a utility bill for over $400 that looked remarkably like the real thing. NOPSI felt compelled to denounce the stunt in public statements and advertisements — and the resultant hoopla helped DiRosa edge out Kiefer for the number two spot. Morrison came in fourth. Morial, who had held onto the largest chunk of the black vote, came in first in the non-partisan open primary’s field of nine. 

That turn of events set the New Orleans Establishment on its ear. DiRosa had been a frequently mentioned luncheon companion of New Orleans racketeer Carlos Marcello, and the town’s Anglo-Episcopal mafia was loathe to see the government handed over to the city’s Italian one. On the other hand, Morial had filled all the requisite civic affairs posts — board slots with the United Fund and local universities, even a part-time teaching job at Tulane’s Law School, but Uptown wasn’t sure it was ready for a black mayor. 

Most of Morial’s campaign chest had been raised in small contributions and from a spectacular series of entertainment benefits featuring local black musical talent and nightclubs. 

The “big” white money didn’t start rolling in until the ludicrously inarticulate DiRosa met Morial in their first, and as it turned out, last, televised debate. Morial later looked straight into the minicam TV corps at his victory night disco bash and said he owed nothing to anyone and, at the same time, everything to everyone equally. And that’s how he’s expected to play it. 

The campaign trail is rich with evidence suggestive of future New Orleans policies. Both Morials showed up for a large, gay-organized fundraising cocktail party to fight Anita Bryant’s New Orleans appearance in June, and after 3,000 people showed up for that march, Morial issued a strong statement on gay rights. Gays were active in the highest echelons of his campaign, and are expected to be included on the citizen task forces Morial plans to establish to advise him on such issues as the appointment of a new police chief. 

Morial also picked up heavy support from the Jewish community, including an endorsement from Uptown’s Jewish Councilman, Frank Friedler, one of only two elected officials in town who dared to endorse him against DiRosa. When DiRosa’s second primary slot was confirmed (loser Kiefer had threatened to file suit to delay the second primary election and recount the ballots), a member of the city’s second wealthiest Jewish family organized a fullpage listing of prominent white endorsers for Morial. Toni Morrison, who studied law for awhile in Buenos Aires, had the support of the city’s Latino community in the first primary, but there were “Viva Morial” signs all over the dance floor on victory night. 

Morial’s victory in New Orleans compares favorably to those of former mayor Fred Hofheinz in Houston, especially with regards to the gay vote, and with Maynard Jackson’s victories in Atlanta, although Morial won with a higher percentage of the white vote. 

Given the unique nature of the city he will now govern, that’s not hard to believe. “Dutch Morial for Mayor,” asked one local newspaper headline: “Too Black, Too White, or Just Right?” The next four to eight years should provide the answer.