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'Witness To Change' Recounts Civil Rights Struggles Of New Orleans

Sybil Morial has written a memoir about growing up in segregated New Orleans.
Courtesy John F. Blair
Sybil Morial has written a memoir about growing up in segregated New Orleans.

If you're from New Orleans, you're probably familiar with the Morial family. Two of them have served as mayors of the city. But the story of Sybil Haydel Morial has not been fully told until now.

Sybil Morial is the author of a new memoir, Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Empowerment, which details her life fighting against segregation and racism in New Orleans.

She may not be as well-known as her son Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans and current head of the National Urban League, or her late husband Ernest "Dutch" Morial, the city's first African-American mayor. But her story parallels that of hundreds of other women throughout history, those who played critical roles in this country's important moments, but often stayed behind the scenes.

Sybil Morial writes about her beginnings in the cocoon of the the black middle class, where she was shielded — but never immune — from the degradations of life under segregation. She details her political activism as she got older. In the 1960s and '70s, she started a civic league to register African-Americans to vote, because she couldn't join the League of Women Voters.

Morial spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about how dealing with segregation as a child affected her decisions as an adult.

Click the audio link above to hear the interview. Interview highlights contain some web-only extended answers.

Interview Highlights

On why she wanted to write a memoir

My memoir was really instigated by Hurricane Katrina. I was displaced, my house flooded. I was displaced and moved to Baton Rouge and was there for eight years before I restored my house. I had flood and then fire and then litigation. So while I lost all of my memorabilia, photographs, papers and little things that remind you of incidents and events, I began to collect my memories in my head. And write them down. And after I had done about 15 events, I thought, I have a book here — I want to do this for my children and grandchildren. So that was the genesis of this memoir.

It was absolutely cathartic for me to be on this level while I was dealing with the tragedies.

On her childhood

My family was middle-class and they provided a good life ... in this cocoon, where we were exposed to many things through the two African-American universities, Dillard and Xavier University. We couldn't go to the public places — the symphony, the opera, the theatre — so we went to what was provided by these two black schools. And the social class was a tight-knit group where everybody's mother looked out for everybody's child. It was a happy time. ...

But when we stepped out of our homes, here we were blocked from everything, subject to humiliation. Couldn't go to public places. So it was sort of a double life. But this cocoon made it very bearable — it was good inside that cocoon.

On a childhood experience going to a park with friends

It looked so beautiful, the beautiful architecture of the museum at the end of this long walk. The lagoons on the sides — the trees and shrubbery. And we dared to go in. We rode our bikes in and were talking under the trees where it was cool. And pretty soon a policeman came up and shook his nightstick at us and said, "You little 'n's, get out of here, you know you don't belong here!" And he was very aggressive. So we turned our bicycles around and left the park. And after we got outside we stopped to catch our breath and talked. And said, "Look, we can't let our parents know this, because they know we're not supposed to go in the park." We were not allowed there. And they didn't know that story until years later, and by then, the rules were changing and Jim Crow was on the run.

On an experience at a debutante ball that led to becoming more politically aware

I was a debutante but it was not something that I really wanted to do. Some girls look forward to that. It was just something you did. But I guess that was my awakening — you know? This is so false. We're mimicking royalty, but when we step out the door, we're certainly not royalty. We have to step back, we're resented, we're rejected, we're humiliated.

So I was 17 years old and I think that was the awakening of my adulthood and what I was going to do with my life. It wasn't all framed then, but it was the beginning.

On being black and standards of beauty

It was in the '60s during the civil rights movement. [A student] came to school one morning all disheveled. Her face all dusty with tears rolling down her dusty face. Her hair all unbraided. And she was crying, and she told me, "Ms. Morial, Billy beat me up." I said, "Why did he beat you up?" She said, "Well he called me 'black,' and nobody's going to call me black and get away with it, so I punched him in the nose."

And that's when a light went on in my head. I said, "My goodness, we all have been conditioned to think that black is ugly." ...

I sat down with the class and we talked about it. And I said, "Our dark skin, our broad features, our kinky hair — that's what we are. And we are beautiful and we need to accept that."

I brought that in stories — not in those words — for the rest of my teaching career. That black is beautiful. What we look like is beautiful. That's what we are, we're not going to look any other way. Let's accept it. White America has set different standards, and they're not standards of beauty for us. So that was a good lesson for my students and for myself.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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