The first modern Black political organizations in New Orleans were a product of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. Local Black civil rights attorneys had achieved a measure of success in fighting discrimination while litigating for enforcement of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

However, they soon realized that integrating Black citizens fully into the political process would require a method for organizing and delivering votes to specific candidates. Organized voters have the leverage to negotiate and demand better services. They also have the ability to select and promote their own group members for public office.

In creating these new organizations, Black civil rights attorneys formed alliances with Black ministers, who were experienced in community organizing since the Black churches had always been gravitational centers in the Black community. They recruited their original door-to-door street canvassers from the ranks of college students and recent college graduates who were eager to take advantage of their newly gained civil rights. The groups were neighborhood-based and depended heavily on neighborhood cohesion from families who had lived there for many generations.    

The organizations all used capital letter acronyms to be easily identified and remembered, so many citizens refer to them as the “alphabet soup” organizations. 

The groups with the best records of winning elections are LIFE (Louisiana Independent Federation of Electors), and COUP (Community Organization for Urban Politics). They are based in the 7th Ward of the city. Other influential groups include BOLD (Black Organization for Leadership Development) based Uptown, and SOUL (Southern Organization for Unified Leadership), based in the 9th Ward and New Orleans East.

The groups originally gained influence by delivering votes in support of the successful campaigns of white politicians such as Moon Landrieu for mayor in 1969, and Edwin Edwards for governor in 1972. In return for their support, they received a certain number of patronage jobs in each of those administrations, allowing them to increase their influence. 

In 1977, a coalition of Black organizations united to elect LIFE founder Dutch Morial as the first Black mayor of the city. In 1986, he was followed by COUP member Sidney Barthelemy, who became the second Black mayor of the city. 

It should be noted that by the late 1980s, suburban white flight was in full effect in New Orleans, decreasing the white population, and increasing the Black population. The Black organizations enjoyed their most power during this period when the city voting rolls flipped from majority white to majority Black. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the groups increased their power by electing many city council members, state legislators, and judges.

While they all still exist, in recent years these groups have seen the number of political offices held by their members reduced as they have lost a string of elections to candidates running as outsiders. Marc Morial was the last pure “organization” mayor, and he left office in 2002. In the past two years, BOLD lost a City Council seat, LIFE lost the Sheriff’s Office, and COUP lost a Public Service Commission seat. In the most recent special elections for criminal district judge and state representative, the organization candidates were soundly defeated. 

There were several structural factors that led to this decline. The first was unique to New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina in 2005. These organizations are neighborhood-based. The hurricane ripped apart many traditional neighborhood ties as former residents rebuilt in new locations. 

The second factor affects every city in the United States: Younger voters use television, the internet, and social media as their primary sources of political information, not grassroots organizing. The Black political groups do not have a strong presence on social media and still depend on grassroots organization.

The final factor is the biggest threat to all traditional political organizations. In the last elections for district attorney, Public Service Commission, and sheriff, dark money political action committees have been successful in funding and electing candidates. 

While dark money PACs have been active in large coastal states since the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling in 2010, they are relatively new in Louisiana. If the pattern from other states holds, the dark money activity will increase. Dark money PACs can usually outspend local organizations because most dark money comes from billionaires and global corporations outside of the state.

Unless the Black political groups can adapt to the new environment, create a strong social media presence, and form fundraising alliances with national dark money super PACs, they will find themselves outgunned in most future elections.

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Robert Collins is a professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard, where he holds the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Professorship. He previously held positions as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences...