Police dragged preacher by feet from protest
It was 50 years ago this week, but Avis Brock remembers it like it was yesterday. A stack of new Louisiana Weekly newspapers had just arrived at her aunt’s pressing shop at Jackson and South Claiborne avenues.
There, at the top, was a picture of New Orleans police officers dragging a man by his feet out of the basement cafeteria at City Hall after a “sit-in” protest against its segregated policies.
It was the man she calls Papa, her grandfather the Rev. Avery Alexander.
Brock, who was 8, saw it and sobbed.
A photo of 21-year-old Sandra Nixon ran next to Alexander’s in the Weekly that day.
Nixon also had been refused service, but police removed her and fellow protester Doris Jean Castle from City Hall in their cafeteria seats.
Each stood about 5-foot-3 and weighed about 100 pounds.
“When police came, Doris refused to get up until she was served. And so I too refused,” Sandra Nixon-Thomas said.
Then police approached Alexander, who stood 6 feet, 4 inches, but was seated on the floor in the serving line.
Two officers grabbed him by the ankles and pulled him across the cafeteria, through a corridor, up two flights of stairs and across a span of cement sidewalk.
A nation already unsettled by photos of Southern children facing fire hoses and police dogs was shocked again by the image of Alexander, a middle-age man in a suit, being dragged up a stairway by police.
Two years before, news wire services had carried photos of crowds of protesters in New Orleans jeering at the little African-American girls who integrated the city’s schools.
Because of its location — City Hall, the seat of municipal power — Nixon-Thomas believes this picture sent a different message, she said recently.
“It called to the attention of the world that the leadership of New Orleans was practicing segregation,” she said. No black people had white-collar jobs in city government, and City Hall’s water fountains and bathrooms were still segregated.
On the morning of Oct. 31, 1963, Alexander, then 53, accompanied a small group of other civil-rights protesters to stage a sit-in at the whites-only basement cafeteria, called the John-Lynn Cafeteria.
Nixon-Thomas said she and Castle, both members of the Congress of Racial Equality, sat down at a table. No one spoke to them, but after five minutes or so, police arrived.
Alexander headed for the cafeteria line, attempting to be served, she said.
He was well known as one of the city’s civil-rights leaders, in particular as chairman of the Consumers League, which had staged a successful boycott of Dryades Street stores demanding merchants not limit the hiring of black workers to menial jobs.
He was also a well-regarded national figure: A long list of prominent civil-rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had stayed overnight at his home at 1939 Gen. Taylor St. on one occasion or another.
His wide recognition earned him no advantage in the City Hall cafeteria.
As Alexander described it in the 1995 documentary “A House Divided,” the cafeteria servers said to him, “We can’t serve you. Don’t you know better than that? You don’t understand? Don’t you have any manners?”
He said he responded: “I have manners. I’m a minister. That’s food. I’m hungry. I want to be served.”
The servers called the manager, who called police, who ordered the protesters to leave.
Alexander and the others refused and were arrested.
Castle and Nixon were seated at a table and refused to leave, so police carried them from the cafeteria on their chairs.
They were charged with “taking temporary possession of a place of business” and showing “resistance or opposition” to an officer, two state laws enacted in 1960 to address the growing number of sit-ins across Louisiana.
Castle and Nixon were taken to jail and booked; they were unaware of what happened to Alexander until they saw it on the television news, she said.
“When I saw it, I realized it could’ve been much worse for Doris and me,” she said. “By the grace of God, we weren’t treated with the same brutality that he was.”
During that week, 36 protesters were arrested in the cafeteria or in other areas of City Hall, according to an article from an unidentified newspaper that’s part of the Amistad Research Center collection.
The collection also includes fliers and brochures published by the Consumers League with photos of others arrested in the cafeteria, the Registrar of Voters Office, the City Council chambers and the waiting area outside Mayor Victor Schiro’s office during that time.
The protests and arrests at City Hall continued steadily until November, when Schiro agreed to meet with civil-rights leaders.
One of the stalwarts arrested during that time was J. Herbert Banks III, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
When Banks later recounted to his son, Jay H. Banks, how he and fellow protesters remained calm even when they were beaten, spat on or taunted, the younger Banks found it hard to comprehend.
“I don’t see how they could restrain themselves,” he said.
Focus on City Hall
The intense focus on City Hall had begun a month earlier, on Sept. 30, when 10,000 black people and a few hundred whites marched from Shakspeare Park in Central City to City Hall in what was called the Freedom March.
No city officials appeared before the crowd.
The peaceful march, said to be the largest protest ever seen in New Orleans, was capped off by an 18-point petition read to those assembled by the Rev. A.L. Davis Jr., another prominent civil-rights leader.
The petition, presented formally to the City Council several days later, called for the appointment of black residents to policy-making bodies and the hiring of black people for civil service jobs; desegregation of all public schools, plus Delgado Trade School; free access to all public facilities, theaters, bowling alleys and beaches; an end to segregated public housing and police brutality; and the immediate desegregation of the City Hall cafeteria.
“The city government and members of the majority that have dominated the affairs of this community and its law-making machinery for the past century cannot escape responsibility for years of callous indifference to the demands of the Negro citizens of New Orleans,” said Davis, who was arrested in Schiro’s anteroom on the same day that Alexander attempted to desegregate the City Hall cafeteria.
According to records in the Louisiana Division collection at the New Orleans Public Library, four other protesters — Uradell Byrd, Samuel Maxmillian, Louis Antoine and Pansy Lee Alexander — were arrested in the cafeteria that same day.
Brock found out only this month about the arrest of Pansy Lee Alexander, her grandmother.
Brock’s mother, Shyrl Brock, 84, said Pansy Lee Alexander walked with her husband on that day, carrying his hat.
“Wherever he went during those times, my mother was there,” Shyrl Brock said. “She didn’t like that kind of excitement. But this is what she did as his wife.”
It must have terrified Pansy Lee Alexander to follow her husband that day, they said.
He told them he’d tried to raise his head while being dragged out so it wouldn’t hit the steps, but the officers handled him so roughly that that was impossible, they said.
He was injured pretty badly and probably should have been hospitalized, they said.
From that day on, he suffered with back problems.
Joseph Giarrusso, police superintendent at the time, recalled the incident with regret in “A House Divided.”
“I was not present at the integration of the cafeteria,” he said. “But I do remember the incident quite vividly. It was a mistake.
“The police made a mistake. We made a mistake. And there was no reason that it had to be done in that fashion,” he said.
“Another technique probably would have been a better substitute for what occurred, and for the bad publicity we received not locally, not nationally, but I believe internationally.”
In Giarrusso’s obituary, his family said he had fought to live down that moment for the rest of his life.
Afterward, Schiro said he couldn’t do anything about the segregated cafeteria because it was privately owned by Robert Lenderman.
Lenderman’s attorney argued in federal court in 1964 that desegregation would bankrupt him, claiming thatbusiness had fallen at the cafeteria by 33 percent after the cafeteria’s staff had voluntarily served two black customers coffee in July 1963.
But U.S. District Judge Herbert Christenberry publicly deplored the incident and ordered immediate desegregation of the cafeteria.
“I think the way in which this man was handled was a disgrace to the city, the police department and everyone concerned,” he said. “I don’t think that the city can say anything in defense of this conduct.”
Sculpture needs home
About a decade ago, a bronze statue of Alexander was installed in Duncan Plaza, across the street from City Hall.
The sculptor, Sheleen Jones-Adenle, included the family in her designing process and even borrowed some of Alexander’s clothes and shoes to make the sculpture, Avis Brock said.
The family highly approves of the result, though the sculpture was crated for safekeeping when the state demolished the state office building and Supreme Court building that once stood on the plaza.
State Division of Administration spokesman Douglas Baker said that because no state buildings remain on Duncan Plaza, the state has no plans to reinstall the statue there.
Alexander’s family said a natural place for the statue would be in front of the University Medical Center now under construction, which will be named the Rev. Avery C. Alexander Academic Research Hospital, thanks to a bill sponsored last year by Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans.
The old Charity Hospital building, now mothballed, also was named in honor of Alexander shortly before Hurricane Katrina.
Brock said her family has made a formal request to the state to install the statue by the hospital. “It needs to go somewhere besides being in storage,” she said.
Baker said the hospital won’t be completed for another year and so plans are still being formed. “We will work closely to make sure that the statue is properly raised again,” he said.
Nixon, his fellow protester from 50 years ago, will miss seeing the sculpture in Duncan Plaza, where Alexander’s likeness had one finger pointed at City Hall.
“It seemed to me that that was in reference to the protest,” she said.