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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) — On the occasion of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we’re reminded of New Orleans’ place in the fight for civil rights and also the time Dr. King spent in the Big Easy.

In February of 1957, our city helped give birth to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but according to Freedom Rider Dorotha ‘Dodie’ Simmons, the Crescent City’s role in helping to change America was underway well before then.

Simmons recalled, “We have to start way, way back in Plessy v. Ferguson. Out of that decision, it was the first supreme court decision where a Black person was involved, and out of that came the separate but equal law. And we know if you separate something, it’s not going to be equal.”

That Supreme Court decision set in motion a host of events that eventually led to the fight for civil rights across America.

As in many cities that fight for justice, while certainly noble, even caused struggle within Black families.

“Sometimes people my age, we didn’t understand it at first, because you know if you told your mama you were going to jail, we didn’t want our children to go to jail. But here was a group of young people that were willing to go to jail for what they believed,” says Mrs. Leah Chase of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant.

The work of many young people across this country, along with Dr. King’s arrival on the civil rights front signaled new strategies and a new day in the fight for justice.

Our first documented King visit to our city was to speak at the Coliseum Arena in 1957, and that is also when the first formative meeting of the SCLC took place here in New Orleans.

Mrs. Chase told us that Dr. King often came to Dooky Chase’s for meetings and to strategize, and always with a sense of urgency.

Mrs. Chase recalled, “He can through here at night with [Judge] Israel Augustine, Dr. Mitchell, those kinda people. He was a man that didn’t sit down. like I’d feed the Freedom Riders, we’d sit down, and we’d talk. He wasn’t like that he was always on the move.”

Dr. King appeared in New Orleans on other occasions as well, and that restless spirit and boundless energy bore fruit in the change to make America a better place for all.

Thanks to the Amistad Research Center for providing resources for this story.

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