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.