“Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights movement fought to achieve?” historian Mark Naison asked as Katrina presented the world with images of a desperate, impoverished US seldom seen in the media, “a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?”
Like every major city in the American South, New Orleans was built on the brutal exploitation of people held in slavery. In its earliest days these were native Indians, but after the mid-1700s the city depended almost exclusively on the forced labour of Africans.
Virtually all of the rich traditions that make up the distinct culture of the “Big Easy” — many of them now saturated in commercialism for the benefit of the tourist industry — are rooted in the attempts of these slaves and their descendants to extract some joy out of a world filled with horrific brutality.
The profit-driven Mardi Gras of today is itself a product of the exclusion of the city’s slave population from official parades. The black marching “krewes” now given prime place in the parade were initially confined to the ghettoes, adopting the names of Indian tribes as a gesture of gratitude to natives who had sheltered escaped slaves in outlying maroon communities.
And of course the incredible interchange of musical styles that produced jazz occurred against a backdrop of rising segregation, forcing classically trained creole musicians into contact with the Delta folk music traditions.
New Orleans is also a city with a rich tradition of working class struggle. The levees were originally built by black slaves and a smaller number of free white labourers — and slaveowners feared nothing more than cooperation between the two.
During the American Civil War, Union troops occupied the city two full years before the north’s victory in 1865, and from the outset freed blacks conducted a fierce battle against their former masters and northern officials seeking a compromise with the old order.
“We must have absolute control over our [field] hands,” one planter beseeched local commanders. “If they refuse to work, we must have the power to whip them.” Freedmen and women organised clubs and leagues to defeat planters’ attempt to introduce Black Codes that would revive slavery in all but name.
Labourers in the sugar fields embarked on a series of strikes to raise their wages, shorten their hours, and withdraw women and children from field work. “Planters complained that whenever they tried to discharge one worker for violating his contract or engaging in misconduct, the rest would immediately quit work and threaten to leave the place,” one account noted.
This attempt to bring some meaning to their new freedom met with implacable opposition, not only from their former masters, but also from northern officials determined to rebuild the south on the backs of black workers.
A series of brutal confrontations followed, in which heavily armed racists assisted by police and Democratic party officials massacred blacks in their hundreds.
With the federal government looking on, counter revolution triumphed across the American south, bringing a bloody end to black workers’ “day in the sun.”
Even this violence did not bring a complete end to the attempt to carve a just society out of the former slave south, however. An agrarian insurrection swept across the region in the 1880s.
This was followed in 1894 by one of the most incredible strikes in southern history. The strike laid the foundations for one of the most powerful dockworkers’ locals in the US.
Today public memory of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s is increasingly shaped by corporate sponsors like McDonalds and Wal-Mart, notorious anti-union, low-wage employers who have an interest in telling us that the freedom struggle never sought more than an end to formal segregation.
It is hard to believe in the wake of Katrina, but more than a decade ago neo-conservative hacks were churning out books about “The End of Racism”.
The horror in New Orleans is a wake-up call, reminding us of the need to return to that struggle without delay.
Brian Kelly is the author of Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfields 1908-1921, University of Illinois Press, £16.99