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“Every Man a King”

Huey Long’s populist message for the people of Louisiana was “Every Man a King.” Wouldn’t it be something if we updated that to the idea that every man, woman and child in these parts should emulate Martin Luther King?

King was a great American philosopher, perhaps the greatest. It pains me to realize how little we’ve learned from his teaching. His birthday has become a day to celebrate black pride. I’m all for black pride, believe me, but I think this sends the message to whites that King has nothing to say to them. That’s wrong. Worse, to some, his birthday has become just another day off work. In pre-Katrina New Orleans there was usually a parade that resembles a rehearsal for Mardi Gras, with plenty of glad-handing politicians and messages of peace and justice relegated to the margins.

Last year thing were different. Real different.

Tomorrow, Xy & I are thinking to participate in this event:

MLK DAY 2007
People’s Reopening of Public Housing

On MLK Day 2007 public housing residents and other supporters of the right of return will conduct a people’s reopening of New Orleans public housing. Drawing upon the same spirit that galvanized Martin Luther King Jr. in his life’s quest for social justice public housing residents and their allies will challenge the immoral and criminal lockout of Katrina survivors from their homes in public housing. That 6,000 desperately needed units of affordable housing sit empty while New Orleanians endure the most severe housing shortage in the city’s history is an obscenity. That Katrina survivors die almost every day from heartbreak, at least in part, because the government and its corporate paymasters refuse to respect their right of return, is a reality.

Let’s put an end to this ugly reality. Join us on January 15th 2007. We shall rally. We shall march. We shall reopen!

January 15, 2007 (MLK DAY)
10am till
3838 St. Bernard Avenue
New Orleans

For information contact:
Sharon Jasper (504) 324-3657
Lynette Bickham (504)-723-4893
Stephanie Mingo (504) 529-3171

Sponsors: New Orleans Public Housing Residents, United Front For Affordable Housing and C3/Hands Off Iberville.


The cause is just. We produced a silly little video about this issue six months ago, but the subject is a serious one. I know lots of neighbors are afraid of the public housing developments, afraid that re-opening them will recreate pockets of concentrated poverty and crime. I’ve got reservations myself, as public housing developments resemble concentration camps to me. But the answer to that is to revise the social contract with public housing residents, not to demolish thousands of habitable apartments at a time when the city’s suffering a massive shortage of housing. More to the point, not reopening these units seems to be further destabilizing our city.

My skepticism regards the organizers. On two separate occasions over the last year, groups I’m working with have been criticized by some of these folks for not joining their struggle. No attempt to build alliances or coalitions, no attempt to reach out, just harsh words and strident rhetoric. They’ll probably denounce me as a bourgeois accommodationist if they ever read this. Still, I’d like to think we can work together.

I’m also not ready for another day of rage. My heart is still heavy and I’m in a kind of emotionally fragile state.

But the above event seems to be the only thing planned in Orleans Parish. So we’ll probably go, but I’d be interested to know of anything else.

Update: We went, and it was an inspiring event indeed. Residents opened the fence and reclaimed their apartments. No one was arrested. I helped carry out a refrigerator. There’s so much that should be said about this event but time as ever is slipping away, so I refer you to photos by dsb nola and narrative by Dangerblond and The Book, in two parts, plus video.

Published inNew OrleansPolitix


  1. I’m interested, too. I want to start attending demonstrations that I think of as “black” things. I haven’t before because I’m not sure I understand the issues that they face and I don’t want to end up in a crowd of people who are claiming that the government blew up the levees, or whatever. Like you, I think of the projects as hell holes and I would not want to live there. But these people must have a point or they would not keep this issue alive for so long. I think I owe it to the black kids who have been killed in this town and who have killed others to try to understand it. Something is making them think their lives and the lives of others are not worth a damn, and maybe this has something to do with it. Maybe this will lead to something I can jump into with no reservations.

  2. Ray Ray

    Worse, to some, his birthday has become just another day off work.

    Much worse, to lots more, his birthday is still just another work day.

  3. I told my husband a couple weeks ago when I first heard of this that I’d probably go. My grandson is off school, so I’m not sure I’ll make it, but I think it’s important. The public housing issues are appalling. Cheaper to rebuild and repair than demolish, but seems the city has decided to demolish them.

    I have an article here with the numbers. If I can’t make it to the march, I’ll try to post it tomorrow at least. I think it’s so important.

  4. Today is different here. Maybe I’m an idealist, but Atlanta reveres and cherishes Dr. King’s legacy. Here, he is palpable, tangible, still very real (the irony being, I’m saying this, from work, but that’s pretty unusual). Since his death, those who were closest to him (Andy Young, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Joseph Lowry, Ralph David Abernathy, Coretta) have gone on to lead our community, both civic and non-profit. Today is supposed to be a day of service to community, something you seem to be doing most days.

    Here, there is a move away from public housing and most of the large public housing complexes that were built in the 50s and 60s are being demolished and not being replaced or being replaced with mixed income/mixed use development (most of which is being built by private-public partnerships). Our city’s leadership is of the opinion that these complexes, while they were vibrant communities, were also crime centers and, ultimately, perpetuated the cycle of poverty. The trend here is to disperse and assimilate the displaced residents using Section 8 housing so that various levels of income are residing together, based on the belief that this provides both incentive and opportunities. Of course, unlike New Orleans, this is being done gradually and ya’ll are in a situation in which everyone left at once, leaving everything they owned behind and ruined, and are now unable to return. That said, it is my understanding that the public housing complexes in NOLA are slated to be demolished and rebuilt. FWIW.

    Take good care of yourself, darlin’. It’s a whole lot of stuff. Peace.

  5. chrissieroux chrissieroux

    I struggle with the same issue–how to build alliances, how to stand alongside those I believe are being treated unfairly amidst all of this anger and “strident rhetoric.” I just finished the MSW program at Tulane; during the course of the program I had the opportunity to meet and talk with some major, fairly militant leaders of the black community, who basically told me to stay out of their business. The best thing I could do, they told me, was to combat racism among “my people”–white people–and stay the hell out of the black community. While I respect this point of view, I really do, I can’t quite accept it. Is that really the best thing we can come up with? We all have a stake in this struggle and it is not in my nature to sit back and watch it unfold. But an alliance has to be a mutual thing and if I’m not welcome, I’m not welcome. How can we change this? What can we do? It’s a conversation we all need to be having–with ourselves, our families, our friends, etc. You may be soft spoken but your voice is powerful.

  6. If it has become a day to celebrate “black pride,” I think it’s gotten that way by white people defaulting on celebrating it.

    Also, why can’t we be creative and resourceful enough to figure out a housing solution somewhere between razing them and keeping them like they are? Just because they’re sturdy, it doesn’t mean they should remain as is; and just because public housing residents were screwed in the St. Thomas conversion doesn’t mean mixed housing can’t be done the right way.

  7. E.J., good points on both accounts. I would guess that public housing residents would be the first to acknowledge that social contract should be revised. At least the residents and advocates I’ve spoken with have decried the lack of job training and other services that would make public housing truly transitional.

  8. Brian Brian

    As waspy academic, the “strident rhetoric” of activists in the local public housing groups does char my ears. But if you really think there is intellectual “freedom”, anti-clickishness, and problem-free leadership in your in-groups… well, then you can’t come play on my playground.

  9. chrissieroux chrissieroux

    Brian, this is Bart’s blog and I’m new around these parts so I won’t argue with you. I just want to point out that it is precisely this sort of rhetoric–sarcastic, accusatory, full of misplaced assumptions–that stalls real progress. OK, we’re all angry (well, most of us). We all have slightly different perspectives. But can we get by without mocking each other?

    OK. That’s all.

  10. Whoa up there, Chrissie. I appreciate what your saying but I’m not sure Brian’s really being sarcastic. It’s hard to judge tone electronically.

    I had written the following back to Brian via e-mail:

    “Problem-free leadership in my in-groups? Far from it. But I’d like to build coalitions. Today’s re-opening of the St. Bernard was was bold and inspirational.”

  11. Wilson Wilson

    The public housing projects in New Orleans (and elsewhere) are a total failure. They are not transitional because the residents are not interested in transitioning. Cheap rent and its concurrent need not to work or progress in any way are just fine with them. I have worked in social services here in New Orleans for over a decade. I have dealt with public housing residents on a daily basis. Why should they work when they have virtually no rent to pay, no utilities to pay, cable TV (which they do pay for) and food stamps for free food? Throw in a few children for some income and life is good. I know helping makes everyone feel good, but let’s be clear about one thing: The residents of public housing will never change unless forced to do so. How? By making them get jobs and become productive citizens. A good first step is to demolish the projects which will coerce those mired in the culture of poverty into responsibility.

  12. Wilson, I’m just trying to imagine the grandmother that I met at the St. Bernard housing project yesterday in a job interview. None of her grandchildren were out of school, and her daughter seemed competent to maybe work at McDonald’s. It seems like you want to punish people for being poor and unemployable. What’s wrong with giving these people a place to live? You want to “coerce” people by demolishing their homes? I hope I never get in need of social services and have the bad luck to walk into your office. “Throw in some children for some income?” That is a reprehensible thing to say. These are human beings.

  13. Wilson Wilson

    Dangerblond: First of all, if you did walk into my office to receive social services you’d be treated with the utmost respect. I would listen to you and help you in any way I could. I have dealt with literally thousands of the poorest of the poor and have treated each and every one of them with the respect I would afford any human being. You would be lucky to walk into my office instead of into the office of one of my burned out professional bureaucrat coworkers. Secondly, I do not want to punish people for being poor or unemployed. The question is: Why are they unemployed? Especially at a time when there are more good paying jobs than ever in Orleans Parish. I’m not talking about grandmothers, I’m talking about young, able-bodied individuals who are not so much unemployed as non-employed. I’m talking about teenage out of wedlock births. I’m talking about dropping out of school. Why is the lady’s daughter so incompetent? Does she have a mental disability, or did she quit school to have babies? And if she could work at McDonald’s, why isn’t she there? My father came to this country with nothing. Literally nothing. He worked his ass off so we could have a good life. In fact, he worked himself to death. As a result of his sacrifice, my brother and I are educated and successful. Not bad for second generation Americans. I’m not the heartless asshole you make me out to be, just someone wondering what happened to the ideal of hard work and education. I’m sure you’ll come up with a million excuses for the project dwellers, but they will fall on deaf ears with me. I think our growing Asian community as a good example of what I’m talking about. Parents toiling long hours in stores and doing menial jobs while their kids finish school and move on to professional careers. The opportunities are there for the taking. Too bad so many of my fellow citizens can’t or don’t want to see that.

  14. To be frank, I do think many of the chronic poor have mental disabilities, diagnosed or undiagnosed. There are only so many jobs available for people who are completely unskilled, work-wise or socially. You would be surprised at how many adults can’t read or make change for a dollar – and I mean they can’t, and not for lack of trying.

    One big difference I can name between Asian immigrants and black Americans is that Asian immigrants aren’t coming out of centuries of slavery, legal and even mandatory discrimination, social neglect and grinding, unimaginable poverty in the midst of the most wealthy country on earth. In the 1960s, there was not and never had been a “black middle class.” It was basically against the law. The comparable society in East Asia would be India’s untouchables. How many of them have managed to immigrate to the US?

    I don’t know how old you are, but in my parents’ day, white men didn’t have to compete with blacks or women for jobs unless they wanted to pick up garbage or clean houses. This was not very long ago. When we wonder why black people can’t do as well as our parents, we must imagine our parents not being able to drink from the same water fountain as other people, or go to good schools, or get adequate medical care, or enter through the front door of a business, and think about how that would have worked out for them.

    I don’t think you’re an asshole, not at all, just in need of a reality check on what we are dealing with. I hope you are not completely closed off to the facts. I’m sure you realize that many black men and women have worked themselves to death to support their families, on much less than your father probably made, in the face of hateful racism, and with much less advancement for their children to show for it. Perhaps there are barriers between them and opportunity that you can’t see.

  15. Wilson Wilson

    I’ll close this out on this note: My parents came out of Hitler’s Germany. That’s why my dad came here with nothing. Most of my family ended up in ovens. Gee…somehow we kids made it.

  16. You and your family deserve respect and admiration, but that does not change the fact that if your father had been black instead of white, he would not have been able to look a white person in the eye in New Orleans. You say he came here with nothing. Did he come here with an education or a trade? That’s more than any black person in the south had in 1938. His white skin was an advantage over every black person. There is a horrible amount of suffering in the world. Your father was strong enough to take it, but many are not.

    BTW, I’ve been known to tell people off roundly when I’ve heard them say that everyone should just “get over” the holocaust. I am strongly motivated by the feeling that we forget the past at our peril. I’ll bet we agree there.

  17. Wilson Wilson

    Hi DB: I enjoyed our debate. You are a good person. I wish there were more like you in the world. We will both keep working for social justice in our own unique ways. Take care!

  18. Garvey Garvey

    It’s funny that someone whose family was exterminated in the holocaust and has dedicated his adult life in social work was told that he “needs a reality check.”

    “Every time a rug is micturated upon, in this fair city, am I to compensate the person?”

  19. Wilson Wilson

    I agree Garvey. And what’s even funnier is her comment about 1938. My father (and mother for that matter) would have gotten down on their knees and thanked God to be treated in 1938 like a black person in America. In 1938 virtually my entire family was exterminated. My grandfather witnessed the murder of his son. My dad was sent to Auschwitz. My mom was in a labor camp. My dad’s parents were murdered. His brothers murdered. My mom’s entire family was killed. Shot or gassed. That’s were my family was in 1938. And yet one generation later here I am. My dad came here with no skill and no education. He picked up a brush and began painting houses. The excuse factory needs to be shut down once and for all. I won’t post here again, but I just had to say my final piece.

  20. Well, frankly I’m struck by how garden-variety Wilson’s conservatism is here. What I think most of us need to do is recognize how much help we’ve had and how many of US have not had to pull ourselves up by our boostraps or overcome a lot. Wilson’s family obviously did, and they have our admiration for that. But most of us who say, “Why don’t they just…” have had some things handed to us. I can remember my dad coaching me on interviewing for a job washing dishes when I was 15. He even clipped an article from the WSJ on interviewing (tips like shining your shoes and getting a fresh haircut that were obviously irrelevant to my job at the Silver Plow, but still showed that you take it seriously). I’ve thought of that when I’ve seen kids who seem ready to work going in to a store to apply with 3 friends, shirts untucked, just dropping it off, etc. All I’m saying is that most of us who’re comfortable now have had some fairly intangible assistance or tangible aid (Rush Limbaugh’s dad owned the radio station where he started) that helped us get where we are.

    I try to keep that in mind when I feel critical of folks who aren’t getting out of public housing. My ambivalence rises though with regard to what to do with the system. The research I’ve read is pretty convincing that concentrated public housing may be ok as an immediate fix, but that dispersion is better long term. Having never experienced public housing first hand, I’m reluctant to act like I know what’s what, but the “culture of poverty” argument that sounds classist to some of us actually holds weight. We admire the initiative of Wilson’s family, but we could produce more of that self-reliance if we modeled it through mixed-income developments, section 8, etc. I have two section 8 buildings on my block, and I think about the kids who’ve come through there and what they see every morning. It’s a relatively safe street, and people generally know each other and go to work each day, keep up their homes, etc. We have our share of the drunk guys who might not strike someone as “model citizens” but they’re good guys and are our friends. Those huge developments can’t help but seem insurmountable to someone who’s been raised there. Put yourself there; I firmly believe that if I were there, I wouldn’t be able to fathom moving on, unless I had a LOT of people I’d seen do just that.

    Sorry so long, and Bart, sorry your blog has become a debate corner, but one more point: Much of this is about perspective. My students (99% African American) come into college with the belief that life is harder for their generation than 100 years ago because of the stressors of modern life (drugs, violence, peer pressure, etc). I try to get them to see that although those pressures are greater and more stressful than in 1900, survival is generally not a concern anymore. Even though we know that crime takes more lives than we can stand and hunger still is a problem, in the US true life-threatening hunger is not too common, and diseases are not the killer they were back then. So we shift our perspective to stressors like “fitting in.” My point is just that I think we all need to try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and be a little more self-critical. One thing that has changed is the perception of happiness. Today, many of us don’t think we can be happy without the right things, but back in the day, desires were somewhat simpler, if not easier to attain.

  21. I’ve seen that video, and it is offensive to most people’s sensibilities. However, common sense dictates that the problem here is not the physical structures of the buildings themselves but the social contract between the residents and the larger community. The answer is not to shutter the building and tear them down, leaving thousands of poor homeless. That is destabilizing the whole city. We need that housing now more than ever. The answer is to reopen them, but in such a way that the old problems are not recreated.

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