Sit-Ins and Marches at City Hall

During the 1960s, Jim Crow laws confined Black New Orleanians to second class citizenship: white owned businesses, restaurants, hotels, and other establishments denied accommodations for Black customers. The City of New Orleans also enforced racial segregation in public spaces and denied employment opportunities to Black people. White people benefited from privileged access, better facilities, and more desirable jobs. [1] Black New Orleanians understood these oppressive conditions weakened their financial opportunities and abilities to participate in the local economy as entrepreneurs and consumers. As a result, Black New Orleanians organized to join a national movement to claim their civil rights.

In early 1960, civil rights advocates in New Orleans began conducting sit-ins and boycotts on Canal Street and Dryades Street that would last three years. Black people fought for their civil rights both behind the retail counter as employees and in front of the counter as patrons. Advocacy groups such as the Consumer’s League of Greater New Orleans, comprised of local civil rights leaders and students, as well as the Congress of Racial Equality, known simply as CORE, engaged in non-violent direct action in New Orleans to advocate for equal employment opportunities and the desegregation of public spaces and accommodations in the city. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also joined efforts to boycott establishments that refused to hire Black employees and staged sit-ins at restaurants denying service based on race. [2]

In August of 1963, activists put pressure on Mayor Victor Schiro to sign an agreement affirming the civil rights of Black New Orleanians. In the deal, Mayor Schiro agreed to remove segregation signs from public buildings, employ Black firefighters and sanitation workers, and to implement these changes quickly. [3]

By the following month, the City still had not integrated its cafeteria at City Hall and Mayor Schiro failed to uphold this agreement. It soon became clear to members of CORE, the NAACP, and other civil rights groups that it was time to change their protest tactics. “We will march because we have been disappointed,” said activist Reverend Avery Alexander, referring to Schiro’s idleness. [4] As a result, civil rights advocates organized a demonstration that would start in Shakespeare Park (today’s A. L. Davis Park) and end at City Hall.

On September 30, 1963, approximately ten thousand Black marchers and three hundred white marchers took to the streets of New Orleans. The crowd included prominent civil rights leaders Reverends A.L. Davis, Avery Alexander, and Milton Upton, alongside NAACP members Ernest Morial and A.J. Chapital and CORE’s Oretha Castle. [5] Once the marchers descended upon City Hall, Castle emphasized the urgency of civil rights. According to Louisiana Weekly, Castle told the crowd that “as long as we are held in political and economic slavery, they [the whites] aren’t free either.” [6]

After the march, Reverend Davis addressed City Council with a list of demands, including an end to segregation in all its forms in New Orleans, Black appointees in government, and an end to police brutality.

Denying responsibility for each request, Mayor Schiro claimed he did not possess the authority to attend to these demands. In addition, Mayor Schiro entirely rejected the existence of police brutality. [7] The local government showed no interest in advancing the goals of the civil rights movement, but rather worked to obstruct its efforts.

Government inaction led to another sit-in on October 31, 1963, where Rev. Alexander and CORE members sat down and requested service in the City Hall cafeteria. Police arrested and physically removed some of the demonstrators, carrying Doris Jean Castle and Sondra Nixon out in chairs and dragging Rev. Alexander from the facility by his feet and over steps. [8] Photos of the incident circulated nationally. In response to the degrading police treatment of Alexander, District Judge Herbert Christenberry ordered City Hall cafeteria to integrate in the winter of 1963. [9]

Even though local political leaders staunchly refused to accommodate a civil rights agenda, media exposure brought state and national attention to New Orleans. The public demonstrations of marches and sit-ins ultimately reached a wider audience and helped propel the momentum of the national movement for civil rights.


Don Hubbard on the City Hall March
Don Hubbard speaks about the different organizations and people involved in the 1963 New Orleans Freedom March. ~ Creator: The Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies ~ Date: 2017
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City Hall, 1300 Perdido St, New Orleans, LA 70112