Sunday, September 19, 2010

7987: Saluting The Maladjusted.

From The Times-Picayune…

‘Maladjusted’ people changed New Orleans and the world

By Jarvis DeBerry

“I wish you had commended the Negro sit inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes…. They will be the young high school and college students, the young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders, courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience’ sake.”—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

Think about the kind of person you’d have to be to risk your enrollment in school, your employment, your physical safety—in short, everything—to fight against unjust laws that the rest of the world seems to be content in following.

According to Andrew Young, Martin Luther King thought you’d have to be a little off. And he thought Young, a New Orleans native who was one of King’s most visible lieutenants, wasn’t quite off enough. In a 1996 PBS documentary Young reveals King’s opinion that Young was not sufficiently outraged at segregation.

“Martin always said, look, normal people don’t challenge the law of the land. He said you got to be strong enough to be creatively maladjusted. And sometimes he said, Andy, you’re too well-adjusted…. But we need people around who can’t be adjusted. People who have to upset things.”

Criticized by white clergy in Birmingham for not waiting for things to get better and for encouraging his followers to break the law, King wrote from jail that the troublemakers would be the ones we’d one day celebrate as heroes.

Fifty years ago this month, young people in New Orleans who were righteously maladjusted to segregation and its dispiriting laws, decided to publicly disobey and accept what followed. Cecil Carter Jr., Oretha Castle, Sidney Goldfinch Jr. and Rudolph Lombard, all of the Congress of Racial Equality, deliberately broke the law at a lunch counter at McCrory’s on Canal Street, The week before, other CORE members had staged the city’s first sit-in at Woolworth’s, but it was the McCrory’s case that went to the Supreme Court.

Their activism paid off for us. Their arrests and convictions were overturned. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “these convictions, commanded as they were by the voice of the State directing segregating service at the restaurant, cannot stand.” But their activism came at a high personal cost.

Castle lost her job at Hotel Dieu hospital. Lombard, a student at Dillard, sat in jail several weeks while school was in session. Goldfinch, a white Tulane grad student, was hung in effigy on the campus and got so many death threats that he couldn’t get life insurance. He also struggled to find work with an arrest record. “It affected my entire life,” he said. Hugh Murray Jr., who participated in the sit-ins at Woolworth’s, moved out of his parents’ homes when they started getting bomb threats. Jerome Smith would soon participate in the Freedom Rides and get beaten brutally and often because of it.

Speaking of being maladjusted, Smith, according to several published accounts, in a May 1963 meeting with U.S. Attorney Robert Kennedy was not so cowed by the official’s presence that he swallowed his anger. There were luminaries there—James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, Lena Horne and psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark. But in “Robert Kennedy and his Times,” Lena Horne is quoted as saying Smith “just put it like it was. He communicated the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro…. He took us back to the common dirt of our existence and rubbed our noses in it…. You could not encompass his anger, his fury, in a set of statistics, nor could Mr. Belafonte and Dr. Clark and Miss Horne, the fortunate Negroes, keep up the pretense of being the mature, responsible spokesmen for the race.” Even so, Kennedy reportedly left that meeting feeling offended by Smith.

If Smith had been nicer, more conciliatory, that meeting may have ended with smiles. But according to the book “Nobody Turn Me Around: A People’s History of the 1963 March on Washington,” weeks after that meeting, President John F. Kennedy gave “the most aggressive presidential address in history on race, which was quickly followed by the most comprehensive legislation in modern history.”

But before the McCrory’s case was heard by the Supreme Court and before Smith let loose on the attorney general, young people here had to muster the courage to disobey.

And further bend our laws toward justice.

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