New Orleans after the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society

New Orleans after the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society

New Orleans after the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society

New Orleans after the Promises: Poverty, Citizenship, and the Search for the Great Society


In the 1960s and 1970s, New Orleans experienced one of the greatest transformations in its history. Its people replaced Jim Crow, fought a War on Poverty, and emerged with glittering skyscrapers, professional football, and a building so large it had to be called the Superdome. New Orleans after the Promises looks back at that era to explore how a few thousand locals tried to bring the Great Society to Dixie. With faith in God and American progress, they believed that they could conquer poverty, confront racism, establish civic order, and expand the economy. At a time when liberalism seemed to be on the wane nationally, black and white citizens in New Orleans cautiously partnered with each other and with the federal government to expand liberalism in the South.

As Kent Germany examines how the civil rights, antipoverty, and therapeutic initiatives of the Great Society dovetailed with the struggles of black New Orleanians for full citizenship, he defines an emerging public/private governing apparatus that he calls the "Soft State": a delicate arrangement involving constituencies as varied as old-money civic leaders and Black Power proponents who came together to sort out the meanings of such new federal programs as Community Action, Head Start, and Model Cities. While those diverse groups struggled--violently on occasion--to influence the process of racial inclusion and the direction of economic growth, they dramatically transformed public life in one of America's oldest cities. While many wonder now what kind of city will emerge after Katrina, New Orleans after the Promises offers a detailed portrait of the complex city that developed after its last epic reconstruction.


The attitudes of the Negro populace for a social and community
action project has been stirred due to the Hurricane.

—Robert Warshawsky, a white VISTA volunteer in the Desire
Community Housing Project, December 1965

It took less than a week to end New Orleans as we knew it. The wind came and the water came and the levees could not keep them away. In August 2005, the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain returned to long-ago shores, and people had to head to higher ground. Hurricane Katrina made nomads out of over a half-million people, and it eroded faith in American progress. Celebrated systems could not keep up. Engineering and technology could not come easily to the rescue. Many thousands had to wait and wonder. More than one thousand perished in the delay. This storm was the big one, and it forced a new epoch in New Orleans’s history. Its aftermath revealed tragic flaws in American democracy and American affluence. Journalists and their audiences were shocked to find that New Orleans had so much poverty, that so many of the poor were African American, and that they—along with animals and the elderly— were left behind in a moment of crisis. The realities of economic inequality and racial privilege could no longer remain hidden by subtleties and safe distances.

This storm forced a new generation of Americans to ask a generationdefining question: Is this America? Forty-one years earlier, in August . . .

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