Speaking in front of an enraptured audience yesterday at the Carrollton Branch of the New Orleans Public Library, New Orleans civil rights leader Reverend Samson "Skip" Alexander presented a first-hand perspective of the civil rights movement. Showing personal photographs of legendary figures and historic moments, Reverend Alexander called the talk Eyewitness to History.
Samson's personal history began with a fifteen year old girl from Gert Town who's life was in danger from giving birth to a fifteen pound baby. Doctors didn't think both the girl and baby could live. But they did: the child grew up to be Reverend Alexander, and his mother lived into her 80s.
"You have to know your history," said the reverend, in a discussion that ranged from the Missouri Compromise to the story of the Scottsboro Boys, to a debate he once engaged in with the rapper Juvenile. Talking about the Scottsboro case, Reverend Alexander expressed the importance of doing your own research, saying, "Things like that were not listed in the Times Pick-On-You."
Reverend Alexander also described some of the inspiring figures he has met, from Louis Armstrong to national and local civil rights leaders. He discussed desegregation struggles in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the fight over the burial place of Louisiana's Black governor P.B.S. Pinchback, who remains buried in Metairie Cemetery, which had been previously reserved for whites only.
Reverend Alexander passionately recounted the importance of the struggles for freedom that made up the civil rights movement, and the very real dangers Black folks lived with during Jim Crow. "When you didn't have the law on your side, you didn't have anything," said Alexander. Black people at this time were not free to travel even small distances, he said. "Going to Baton Rouge might cost you your life. The Klan might run you off the road."
Discussing the period of Jim Crow segregation, Reverend Alexander highlighted the fact that Black New Orleanians owned more businesses then and in many ways had more economic opportunities. "In segregation, we didn't know anything else," he said. "And we got along quite well." The civil rights movement was a movement for political and economic freedom, but in many ways the economic side of the battle remains to be fought.
Reverend Alexander was also a leader of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and worked with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. "We lived in struggle, but kept our eyes on the prize," he said, describing his time organizing for civil rights. "No one gave us freedom. We earned our place."