Morial, Ernest “Dutch” 1929
Ernest “Dutch” Morial 1929–1989
Former mayor of New Orleans
In 1978, Ernest “Dutch” Morial was sworn in as the first African American mayor of New Orleans, Louisiana. A longtime civil rights activist in the city, Morial enjoyed an impressive career filled with many other firsts, including winning election to the state’s House of Representatives as the first African American legislator in that body since the Reconstruction era. Morial died suddenly on Christmas Eve of 1989, but his son, Marc, continued his father’s legacy of achievement when he was elected mayor of New Orleans in 1994. The elder Morial had once pointed out that the public sector was the ideal arena in which African Americans might, by default, gain a wealth of leadership skills. “Comparable white people will be presidents of private corporations, but the black has to be in the public sector to succeed,” Morial told U.S. News and World Report writer Steve Huntley.
Morial was born in October of 1929, and was the youngest of six children. Walter, his father, was a cigar manufacturer, while his mother, Leonie, worked as a tailor. He grew up speaking French, as was common for many established African American New Orleans families during the era. The Morials were black Creoles, the descendants of free blacks who had found refuge in the liberal, European-minded port city of New Orleans. The family were practicing Roman Catholics, and Morial attended both public and parochial schools. At Xavier University—the customary training ground for middle-class African Americans in the city—he excelled academically, and earned his degree in 1951.
In 1954, Morial broke his first barrier in the pre-civil rights era of the Deep South when he became the first African American graduate of Louisiana State University School of Law. He then spent two years with the United States Army intelligence corps, and returned to his hometown to begin working as an attorney. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he became deeply involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement, and won numerous discrimination cases involving the segregation of Louisiana public schools, New Orleans taxicabs, and the city’s recreation department. “He was the last of a very important line of civil rights figures in New Orleans,” a history professor in the city, Joseph Logsdon, told New York Times obituary writer Frances Frank Marcus. “He was part of a civil rights movement that went all the way back to Reconstruction.”
Morial was also active in the New Orleans chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
At a Glance…
Born Ernest Nathan Morial, October 9, 1929, in New Orleans, LA; died of cardiopulmonary collapse, December 24, 1989, in New Orleans, LA; son of Walter (a cigar maker) and Leonie (a tailor) Morial; married Sybil Haydel; children: Marc, Jacques, Juli, Cheri, Monique. Education: Xavier University, B.A., 1951; Louisiana State University School of Law, J.D., 1954. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic.Military service: Spent two years with the U.S.Army intelligence corps, mid-1950s.
Career: Attorney in private practice, after 1955; appointed to post with the U.S. Attorney General in Louisiana, 1965; elected to Louisiana House of Representatives as a Democrat, 1967; appointed to Louisiana juvenile court, 1970; elected judge of Fourth CircuitCourt of Appeal, 1972; elected mayor of New Orleans, 1977, reelected, 1982; United States Conference of Mayors, president, 1982-86; Brook, Morial, and Cassibry (attorneys), partner, late1980s.
Member: Democratic National Committee; National Association for the Advancementof Colored People (president, New Orleans chapter, 1962-65).
People (NAACP), and served as the chapter president for three years. In 1965, he became the first African American to win appointment to the U.S. Attorney’s office in Louisiana. Two years later, he ran as a Democrat and won a seat in the state House of Representatives, making him the first African American to serve in the legislature since the Reconstruction era just after the end of the American Civil War. As a member of the state House, Morial continued to strive for change, sponsoring a bill to eliminate the death penalty in Louisiana, and another that would have granted 18-year-olds the right to vote.
In 1969, Morial ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the New Orleans City Council, but the following year was appointed a judge on the bench of the state juvenile court—where, once again, he became the first African American to achieve that post. In 1972, Louisiana voters gave Morial another pioneering accomplishment with his election to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the time, it made him the highest-ranking African American in Louisiana state government. “Dutch wouldn’t bend his knee to anyone,” Logsdon told the New York Times, “but he would cooperate with anyone on the basis of full equality.”
Morial resigned from the Appeals Court bench when he decided to campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1977. Racial barriers in the city, which were supposedly dismantled by federal civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, still existed in some quarters. Some white New Orleanians perceived Morial, with his impressive record of achievement, as being too overconfident for an African American man. Morial, who was running against an Italian American city council member, was forced to tread a thin line between white and African American voters because an overwhelmingly African American turnout might not yield victory. He also weathered some criticism for refusing to meet with white business and civic groups in the city. In November of 1977, Morial captured 51.5 percent of the vote and defeated Joseph V. DiRosa.
In his acceptance speech, the mayor-elect asserted that the victory “speaks eloquently for our city and indicates to the nation and to the South in particular that people in New Orleans recognize quality,” according to a report written by Wayne King for the New York Times. Morial was sworn in the following spring as the first African American mayor of New Orleans. Although he had the largest constituency of any African American elected official in the South, he dismissed the significance of this achievement. Morial’s primary goal was to turn New Orleans around and, as he was quoted as saying in the New York Times, alleviate the “urban ills which have created an underclass in American cities. It is not blackness, but executive ability that will solve the problems.”
At the time of his election to the mayor’s office, New Orleans was the third-poorest major American city. Morial was able to implement several measures and statutes to improve the city’s economic health and quality of life. He cut 2,000 jobs out of the city’s bloated bureaucracy, a strategy which he combined with general belt-tightening across all departments. Re-elected to a second term in 1982, Morial again captured nearly all of the African American vote and an impressive 14 percent of the white districts. By 1984, he had eliminated a $40-million deficit in the city’s finances and balanced the budget. One of Morial’s most impressive and lasting achievements during his eight years as mayor, however, was to secure federal funds to spur economic development in New Orleans. For instance, a $102 million appropriation led to the creation of a 7,500-acre industrial district which was predicted to lure over $1 billion in private investment to the city. In addition to the thousands of new jobs that were created, this development also sparked an unusual building boom in downtown New Orleans.
The New Orleans city charter specified that mayors could serve only two consecutive terms. Morial, who was riding a wave of voter approval, introduced a measure to amend the charter. However, his proposal was defeated by referendum in 1985. Morial returned to private practice, and continued his political activism from a more powerful platform—the Democratic National Committee. In 1988, he was invited to serve as senior advisor to the party’s presidential candidate, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.
Morial’s many supporters in New Orleans tried to convince him to run for mayor in 1990, but he declined to enter the race. The city’s problems had worsened since he left office, and “he realized the problems facing the next mayor would be enormous,” noted the New York Times. During a week of unusually bitter cold weather in New Orleans, Morial left a friend’s home and suffered an asthma attack from the cold air. This attack triggered a cardiopulmonary collapse, and he died on December 24, 1989. Morial was survived by his wife, Sybil, and five children. The Reverend Jesse Jackson followed the casket in the funeral procession, and thousands of New Orleanians who remembered their admirably uncompromising mayor lined the streets to mourn his death. Morial even managed to achieve another first after his death, when his son Marc was elected as mayor of New Orleans in 1994. It earned the two men a place in American mayoral history as the first African American father-son duo to lead a major city.
New Orleans Magazine, December 1993, p. 69.
New York Times, November 14, 1977; December 25, 1989, p. 64.
U.S. News and World Report, March 5, 1984, p. 68.
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