Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Louisiana Bus

I was beat, and it felt good.  You've probably had that feeling.  It comes from pouring what you've got into what matters.  That exertion ran from the early morning through most of Saturday. 

Afterwards, I made it over to my favorite local grocery, the Breaux Mart on Magazine Street, to lay in a supply of Abita satsuma brew and other necessities for a relaxing Sunday.  I had decided not to work on any new posts this weekend, as much because of a lack of time as my conviction that the most recent post on Friday, which focused on the subject of unemployment, should concern us more than any other single issue today.  It is a national disaster and disgrace.  It deserves our full attention, contemplation, and understanding, for the tragic human wreckage it is causing. 

Hence, I was content to let it stand first in line on the blog, not obscured by any new entries for a couple of days.  But an irresistibly seductive metaphor for Saturday's work, overheard in a snippet of conversation as I crossed the parking lot, took advantage of my weakened condition.

"I'm talkin' about the Louisiana bus," screeched a jerky, worn ebony woman, dancing on the edge of her last nerves.  Her disinterested man was unmoved.  It was all I heard, but I was caught.  She had in mind the Louisiana Avenue bus, which runs across a good part of uptown and central city New Orleans, along a route passing a block from the grocery.  And she decided my mind to tell you a bit about the history of this neighborhood and this state.

That portion of the Louisiana Avenue bus route from the river to Magazine Street constitutes the western border of the neighborhood known as the Irish Channel.  It is where I was born and where I live today.  It was named for the wave of starving, poor, laboring Irish immigrants who settled in this area of New Orleans in the late 1800s.  By the 1920s, my polyglot family had planted its roots in the Channel. These Cockneys, Germans, and Italians were themselves scramblers and survivors, with a bent for hard work and a nose for politics.

After service with the Army in the European theatre during WWII, my uncle, Nick Lapara, went to work for Industrial Electric, a motor and neon sign company on Magazine Street.  When my father returned from service with the Marines in the Pacific, Nick got him a job with Industrial.  They both became union members, and remained union men for life.  They married sisters, and started families in the same apartment house my grandmother owned and lived in on Jackson Avenue, another major artery in the Channel.  That was life in the city.  So was politics.

Nick had political talent and drive.  He was very active and quickly became the designated Ward Leader of what was known as the Old Regular Democratic Party.  In 1956, he won a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives, the same year Earl Long was returned to the Governor's office, following a four year hiatus occasioned by the prohibition on consecutive terms at that time.  Nick's campaign cost all of 300 dollars, which was mostly spent to rent a station wagon outfitted with roof mounted bull horns and used to drive around the neighborhoods urging votes for the "people's champion."  I can still hear it.  I'm sure the rest of the money went to buy drinks.

Earl Long, like his brother Huey, was a political progressive.  He was a stout and steadfast liberal on labor and race issues.  In the very first legislative session after the 1956 election, Nick and Governor Long, along with other progressives, got busy straightening out the mess produced by the preceding so-called "reform" governor, Robert Kennon.  They sought and achieved repeal of the state's first right-to-work law, which Kennon had backed.  To this day, there is, hanging in the Greater New Olreans AFL-CIO office, an "Honor Roll" plaque listing the names of the legislators who voted to repeal that awful anti-labor law.  IBEW local 130 member, Nick Lapara, is on the list.  I'm proud of that, as all IBEW members should be.  I'm also proud of the fact that Nick ultimately lost his representative's seat because, like Earl Long, he was a liberal on race and stood bravely in favor of integrating all of the city's public housing, including the then all white St. Thomas Project in his district.

I tell this story not because Nick was my uncle.  I tell it because I know it.  I tell it because it is important.  I tell it because if I don't tell it, no one else will.  Most people don't even know that there was a right-to-work law in Louisiana prior to the one enacted in 1976.  Judging by information published on the Internet, the Louisiana PBS affiliate in Baton Rouge doesn't even know it.  That is not only a shame, it's downright scary. 

If we are to win despite the odds and wrongs against us in our day, we need to appreciate that those who came before us enjoyed circumstances no stronger than our own, yet managed to take on great challenges and overcome them.  If I believe nothing else in this world, I believe we have it in us to do the same. We have it in us to move forward, to make a better way, to turn back the claims of the greedy, to face down the bullying of the powerful, to flood light over the darkness of ignorance, and to make tomorrow a brighter day.

On Saturday, a number of us were out breathing life into those sentiments.  We were campaigning with our bright young candidate for the district 103 state representative seat, Chad Lauga.  We traveled down to the lower reaches of Plaquemines parish. In that it snakes along the river, Plaquemines makes its residential pattern a considerable stretch of real work for this sort of campaigning, but Chad and this team were easily its match.  I'm sure many of you know that Chad is a member of local 130, and our lobbying point man in Baton Rouge.  What you may not know, but can be confident of, is that he is going to win this election.  We can and will make history, again.

As we went through the day, I thought about the old station wagon with the roof top bull horns from that long ago campaign, and the various personal vehicles our team employed in undertaking this effort.  I also found myself comparing our transportation, past and present, to that ridiculously extravagant, hulking, and ponderously silly 2 million dollar bus Obama hit the political trail in a week ago. I really don't know if he has a seat for us anywhere on that ride.  I have a lot more confidence in the direction our little metaphorical Louisiana bus tour is headed. And I know, with effort and time, we can close whatever distance lies between our present circumstances and a place of full and meaningful participation in the social, economic and political discourse and decisions in this state and in this country.  Indeed, today we also remember another long ago campaign in which Rosa Parks demonstrated that, however humble the beginning, a just cause carries us all forward from the back of the bus.

Map of Louisiana highlighting Plaquemines Parish

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