While Louisiana is without a museum exclusively dedicated to commemorating its role in the civil rights movement, the state’s legacy is rich. The nation’s first organized protest against segregated seating on city buses took place in Baton Rouge in 1953. In 1960, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges was the first to integrate an elementary school in the South when she attended all-White William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans. That same year in New Orleans, Black activists were arrested for staging a sit-in at a Whites-only lunch counter, leading to a Supreme Court decision in 1963 in favor of the protesters. In Jonesboro in 1964, a group of armed African American men formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice, remembered for fighting back against Klan terror and protecting civil rights workers.
Louisiana’s history as a site of resistance can be attributed in large part to the state’s deep-seated racism. As a port city, New Orleans was once home to the country’s largest slave market. The foundation of the state’s economy was a robust network of brutal plantations. Enslaved Black labor built much of Louisiana’s most celebrated architecture, as well as the levees required to keep the Mississippi River contained. The abolition of slavery was followed by the formation of white-supremacist groups like the White League, a paramilitary terrorist organization led by Civil War veterans. During Reconstruction, the New Orleans chapter infamously staged a short-lived coup against the state’s government, and a monument honoring its efforts stood in the city until its contentious removal in 2017.
The roots of the “separate but equal” doctrine were in Louisiana. When ruling on the case of Homer Plessy — a man of one-eighth African American heritage who defied the law and boarded a Whites-only rail car in New Orleans — the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation in 1896. Widely considered to be one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, it was this exact form of legalized racial segregation that the civil rights movement fought to undo.
Considering that much of Louisiana’s history is conveniently overlooked, most people are probably unfamiliar with Plaquemines Parish. A narrow and sparsely populated strip of land encompassing the last 70 miles of the Mississippi River, the parish extends to Louisiana’s southernmost terminus at the Gulf of Mexico. It’s here, near the last town accessible via road, where one of Louisiana’s major civil rights stories began.
In 1966, 19-year-old Gary Duncan was wrongfully arrested and accused of assault in Plaquemines. Richard Sobol, a young Jewish lawyer from New York who relocated to New Orleans to work on civil rights litigation, took the case. What followed was a hard-fought legal battle resulting in a Supreme Court decision that had a significant impact on America’s criminal justice system.
As a young Black man living in a parish controlled by an avowed white supremacist, Duncan had a slim chance of a fair trial. Plaquemines was ruled by Leander Perez, an anti-integration autocrat with a larger-than-life personality and a political career that spanned five decades. After being excommunicated from the Catholic Church for his stance on integration, he built a snake-infested prison camp for “racial agitators” in an abandoned military outpost. “Perez invited Martin Luther King Jr. and his Communist overlords to come for a long visit,” Van Meter writes, “adding with a wink that it was the only racially integrated facility in all of Plaquemines.”
While “Deep Delta Justice” revolves around Duncan’s case, the narrative branches out to the larger civil rights battles of the era, both in courtrooms and on the streets. “It is hard now to appreciate how close the United States felt to a race war,” the author writes. The summer of 1967 saw major unrest throughout the country, and the National Guard was deployed in a dozen locations. In Louisiana, A.Z. Young led a 105-mile march from Bogalusa — referred to at the time as “Klantown, USA” — to the state Capitol in Baton Rouge.
At the center of Van Meter’s book is Sobol, the young lawyer who left a prestigious law firm in the Northeast to work on civil rights cases in the Deep South. He came to New Orleans in 1965 to work for the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. While originally intending to visit for a few weeks to handle cases as needed, Sobol changed his plans when he realized the amount of work required. He moved to New Orleans, took on Duncan’s case and battled “the most notorious racist in the state.”
Duncan v. Louisiana is considered a historic milestone in civil rights history, as the Supreme Court ruled that a state must adhere to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of a jury trial. Sobol would continue fighting on behalf of oppressed people. In 1972, he argued before the Supreme Court in favor of unanimous jury verdicts. He lost, but he told Van Meter that if the court were to later rule in favor of unanimous juries, he would say he won “retroactively.” Sobol died in March at the age of 82. In April, the Supreme Court ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that guilty verdicts in criminal trials must be unanimous.
Deep Delta Justice
A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South
By Matthew Van Meter
Little, Brown. 290 pp. $28