Civil Disobedience: Fighting Segregation in New Orleans

Essential Question

How did white musicians, teachers, and venue owners confront segregation in New Orleans, and how did their actions relate to the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin?


Note to teacher: The written materials used in this lesson contain racial slurs.   

In 1962, a midpoint of the Civil Rights movement, writer James Baldwin penned a letter to his 14 year old nephew to prepare him for adulthood as an African-American male in the United States. Baldwin encouraged the young man to remember that many Americans are “trapped in a history they do not understand,” and that while they might recognize the injustice of segregation, they “find it very difficult to act on what they know.” “To act is to be committed,” Baldwin tells his nephew, “and to be committed is to be in danger.”

Looking back at the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it is difficult to refute Baldwin’s assessment. As revealed in the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, or Malcolm X, lives committed to justice and equality are too often short and tragic. With African American activists literally laying their bodies on the line, Civil Rights leaders at times grew frustrated with people on the sidelines, paying lip service to the movement but hesitant to commit. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr., “[the person] who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom. . .and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Yet, in the midst of apathy and half-heartedness among many white Americans, some committed to the goals of the Civil Rights movement. One might think most directly of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, activists who, with James Chaney, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. While they made the greatest sacrifice, Goodman and Schwerner were part of a multitude of white Americans who stood with African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, whether by marching in protest in Washington or pursuing integration and justice in their own towns and cities.

In this lesson, students examine three figures—teacher Barbara Henry, venue owners Allan and Sandra Jaffe, and musician Dr. John— who fought segregation in New Orleans, a city that owes much of its wealth to the slave trade and enacted some of the harshest segregation laws in the country. By examining historical materials and video clips from Sonic Highways, students discuss the risks each of these figures took on in their actions, and how such actions relate to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge)
    • Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
    • James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew”
    • The various forms of activism undertaken during the Civil Rights era
    • How music venue owners Allan and Sandra Jaffe, teacher Barbara Henry, and musician Dr. John confronted segregation in New Orleans
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to explain how select Americans confronted segregation in New Orleans through analyzing historical documents and video interviews.


Entry Ticket Activity:

  1. Before class, have students read Handout 1 – Dr. Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” (Note: this document contains racial slurs). While the whole letter is provided, only sections 1-4 will be discussed in class. Teachers may use their discretion in assigning the reading.  
  2. OPTIONAL: Ask students to read Handout 2 – James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew.” The pertinent sections of the letter will be read in class, but the entire letter can be assigned if the teacher wishes.

Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students the following questions about Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail:
    • What was Dr. King’s motivation for writing the letter? Who is he responding to, and where was he when he wrote it? (If necessary, point students to paragraphs 1-3.)
    • What do you think Dr. King might mean when he says in paragraph 4 that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere?” Can you give an example?
    • In paragraph 9, how does Dr. King justify the need for direct action in confronting segregation? What does direct action accomplish?
    • What do you think Dr. King might mean when he says “justice too long delayed is justice denied” in paragraph 11? How does he try to convince the reader that African Americans should no longer have to wait to demand equal rights?
    • In section 3, how does he delineate “just” and “unjust” laws? What examples does he give of just and unjust laws? What types of literature does he draw upon to make his case?
    • In section 3, how does Dr. King define civil disobedience? (Possible answer: the act of disobeying unjust laws). What example does he give of an act of civil disobedience?  
    • In section 4, why does Dr. King express disappointment in those he calls “white moderates”? Why might white moderates be hesitant to act?    
  2. Display image 1, James Baldwin: “Letter to my Nephew,” on the board. Tell students that the text comes from a letter James Baldwin wrote to his nephew a year before Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Have students read the quote out loud. Ask them:   
    • Who might Baldwin be referring to when he writes, “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand”? What might he mean by this?
    • Why, according to Baldwin, do people “find it difficult to act on what they know?”
    • For Baldwin, why might the “white moderates” Dr. King speaks of be hesitant to act?


  1. Play Clip 1, “American Segregation” (end video at 2:00). Ask students:
    • How do Amzie Moore’s comments relate to James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew? (Encourage students to think about the connection between Moore’s feelings of inferiority compared to whites, and Baldwin’s insistence that “there is no reason for you to try to become like white men.”)
    • How do Virginia Durr’s comments relate to Baldwin’s letter? (Encourage students to compare Virginia’s statement that she took segregation for granted and Baldwin’s argument that, for white people, changing the long history of segregation “attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.”)
    • According to the video, what did African Americans risk by confronting the system of segregation? What might have whites risked?
  2. Tell students that they will be looking at how white Americans fought for Civil Rights in New Orleans particularly. But rather than looking at Civil Rights leaders or politicians, they will be examining the actions of local musicians, teachers, and business owners, and the risks they took on fighting segregation.
  3. Split the class into three groups, and display image 2, “Station Questions,” on the board. Have each group relocate to one of the three stations set up in the classroom. Tell the groups that each station is devoted to a person in New Orleans who fought segregation. Students are to read the text at the station and watch the video, then answer the questions projected on the board. Stations are as follows:
  4. Have student groups share their answers with the rest of the class.

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • How might the actions of Barbara Henry, Allan and Sandra Jaffe, and Dr. John constitute what Martin Luther King Jr. considered “direct action”? (Encourage students to consider Dr. King’s notion of direct action leading to crises or creating “creative tension”).
    • How do the examples of Henry, the Jaffes, and Dr. John relate to Martin Luther King Jr.’s thoughts on just and unjust laws? Were these figures breaking just or unjust laws?
    • Considering the time period, would it have been possible for African Americans in New Orleans to pursue the same types of civil disobedience that Barbara Henry, The Jaffes, and Dr. John enacted? Would the risks be different?
    • One might argue that the small actions undertaken by Henry, the Jaffes and Dr. John had far less significance than the larger movements created by people like Martin Luther King, Jr. But do you think there is value to these small actions to fight segregation? How might they have contributed to ending segregation? (Encourage students to think about the power of such actions in large numbers.)  

Extension Activity:

  1. Drawing upon the individuals discussed in the lesson, write a persuasive essay on how small actions have the potential to lead to larger social change. If possible, draw upon contemporary examples.


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language (K-12)

Language 3: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listing.

Language 5: Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in a word meaning.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

Comprehension & Collaboration 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Comprehension & Collaboration 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge 4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

Research to Build and Present Knowledge 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding  of the subject under investigation.

National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 6: Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education – National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.