MLK 50: Kalamu ya Salaam on how the Civil Rights Movement played out in New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS -- "While the rest of the country was actively involved in a lot of civil rights demonstrations, because of New Orleans' history we had an educated sector of black folks that most other places in the Deep South did not."

Ninth Ward-born Kalamu ya Salaam, an activist, writer and teacher, was arrested for the first time when he was a junior in high school. It was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and he was booked for his participation in a sit-in at Canal and Rampart streets.

"The leader of that particular action was Oretha Castle Haley," Salaam recalled. "I pass Canal and Rampart, and they're tearing it down. It's gone. That's long gone now. Woolworth's is gone. That's when I was first -- as we say in the movement -- when I first got arrested was right there during a sit-in. My background was one of active participation in what some people would call the Civil Rights Movement, and our parents encouraged us."

As part of our yearlong commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated 49 years ago, we are reflecting on the past, evaluating the present – and seeking solutions for the future.

For Salaam, activism didn't happen overnight.

"You don't just wake up and say I want to be this that or the other. You go through a process," he said. "The old folks have a saying, 'Who that boy people is?' You show me who their people are, and and then I can tell you something about them. That's it. You're learning about who that boy's people are."