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Carnival Time and Civil Rights

Gabrielle Caine, author of today’s selection (second-to-last in this series of blogs) from The Long Ride is another of the resilient students we had the privilege of working with at Douglass after Katrina.

Douglass was the fourth high school for Gabrielle when she joined us last year as an 11th grader. She comes from a long line of resilient New Orleanians who have struggled for basic human rights for generations and even when we’re having fun at carnival time.

All on a Carnival Day
Gabrielle Caine

Carnival is one of my best days. I like the Zulu parade most of all, because they throw the most things. I’m not talking about beads. I’m talking about stuffed animals, baby dolls, make-up kits, and coconuts.

I will never forget about one carnival, the year after Hurricane Katrina, when government officials were saying they may not have a carnival season, because there were not enough people back in the city. When I heard that, I started crying like a big baby. I said, “No one is coming back. I will never see my friends. Carnival is no longer my best day.” I started thinking about all of that.

Then in my writing class I learned about another carnival day that got me thinking even more. It was in the late 1950’s when the city was keeping its Municipal Auditorium segregated. The musicians’ union and some social aid and pleasure clubs decided to follow the suggestion of Leonard Burns, who was a member of the NAACP and the Urban League, and do something about this and all the other government segregation. They formed the United Clubs and used their carnival balls and organizations to raise money for civil rights causes and the United Negro College Fund.

From this start in 1953 to the late 1950’s, the United Clubs became more aggressive as local, state, and federal officials became more extreme in keeping blacks as less than equal citizens. Russell Long, the U. S. Senator from Louisiana, even encouraged white parents to pull their children out of public schools in New Orleans rather than go to black and white integrated schools.

And that’s when the United Clubs did something I’m not sure I’d want to do. They were going to cut out carnival for everyone, blacks and whites. It was going to be a “blackout,” meaning no black musicians or marching clubs or even balls with all the tuxedo rentals and gown and flower purchasing that goes with that.

If I was around in 1957 and 1961 when that happened and they tried to let white folks use Municipal Auditorium without letting blacks in, I probably would have been in jail behind protesting. Or I would have put white make-up on and snuck into the balls. But I love carnival no matter if it’s a ball, a party, or a parade. I’m glad I don’t live in a time when we have to cancel carnival just to get people to act right. But it also makes me wonder if we’re just not paying enough attention to when people treat us bad or if we’re too busy having fun or if we’re just not as unified as the unions, the social aid and pleasure clubs, the carnival organizations, and the civil rights organizations were back then.

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