Lolis Edward Elie has just celebrated his 80th birthday among family and friends on St. Thomas. Sunday the retired New Orleans attorney took time out from his visit to look back on an eventful life, one that put him at the forefront of the American Civil Rights movement.
Elie, among other things, helped to plan the freedom rides that took place in the South in the 1960’s and defended some of the key cases in the movement.
A soft-spoken man with a sparkle in his eyes and energy that belied his age, Elie talked of life in an America that did not recognize that “all men are created equal” and the journey that led to his involvement with the Congress of Racial Equality CORE) and the civil rights movement.
Born in New Orleans in 1930 to parents who had not had much education, Elie attended a private high school run by the Methodists. Tuition at that time was $17 a semester. Elie was a good student, but he did not grow up with a burning desire to be a lawyer. In fact, he never even thought he would go to college.
After a six-month stint as a merchant seaman, he ended up in New York City, a 17-year-old who fell in love with the lights of the big city.
According to Elie, it was a time of unbelievable poverty for him but, even poor, he managed to have the time of his life.
“It was possible in the ‘40’s to have some quality of life in New York with minimal income,” he said, remembering going to shows at the Apollo Theater and listening to the jazz greats who played the clubs.
During the coldest winter New York had seen that century, Elie was delivering stationery in the subways for $30 a week and shivering in his New Orleans clothing when he saw a sign for a shoeshine job in a barber’s place right across from the New York Hilton. Said Elie, “I knew that day God had smiled on me.”
At 18, he had to register for the draft.
“At that time,” said Elie, “people believed that if you were African American and you registered in the North, you would automatically get sent to the South and vice versa. Since I never wanted to live in the South again, I went home and registered there.”
This was during the Korean War and Elie was drafted into the Army and sent to California.
Elie didn’t know it at the time, but his time in the Army would change the course of his life. He went to clerk typist school and had at that time what he calls “his first white man’s job” and learned for the first time what a coffee break was.
He also developed a friendship with an Italian named Frank D’Amico.
“Those white boys from Texas didn’t think there was much difference between a Negro and an Italian,” said Elie.
D’Amico, who had completed law school, said to Elie one night, “Lolis, you are very smart and should become a lawyer.” Elie had never been told anything like that before.
Elie was accepted to Howard University after leaving the Army and studied “harder than you’d ever seen anyone study” that first year. Unfortunately, Howard was also filled with beautiful women and Elie spent all of the money he had saved in the Army courting Howard beauties.
In 1953, Elie saw a notice that Loyola University had been desegregated so he moved back to the South and enrolled at Dillard University.
Wanting to get involved in the civil rights actions that had been happening elsewhere in the country, Elie helped to organize a student chapter of the NAACP on the Dillard campus that soon became the largest college chapter of the NAACP. In 1956, the Louisiana legislature, with Gov. Jimmie Davis behind them, resurrected the “Ku Klux Klan control law of 1924,” which required the NAACP to file membership lists.
As this was essentially a death sentence for some members, the NAACP was forced to suspend its activities.
Elie ended up graduating from Loyola Law School, which had a total of eight African Americans in the entire school, and hanging up his first shingle on Dryades Street, directly across from the Negro YMCA, with partners Nils Douglas and Robert Collins. Collins was the second African American to finish law school in New Orleans.
Dryades Street, the major shopping area for blacks since they were not welcome in the shops downtown, soon became a hotbed of civil rights protests. A group called the Consumer League decided to boycott the shops and hired Elie to represent them when the group was just forming. The boycotts succeeded in compelling some of the shop owners to hire black clerks.
Elie was then approached by Rudy Lombard, chairman of the New Orleans chapter of CORE, an organization formed to fight for racial equality in a non-violent manner, who told him they were going to begin holding sit-ins to protest segregation of the shops in downtown New Orleans.
“The boycotts had economic implications,” said Elie, “but no social implications. The sit-ins had political, social and economic implications.” It was 1960 and sit-ins had become national news.
Elie and his partners represented the protesters and soon became the principal defenders of CORE activists. On September 17, 1960, Lombard, along with Oretha Castle, Dillard student Cecil Carter and Tulane student Sydney “Lanny” Goldfinch, sat at the counter in McCrory’s department store on Canal Street in downtown New Orleans. They were arrested and Goldfinch was charged with criminal anarchy, which carried a sentence of 10 years in prison.
At the time, though, Elie and his partners had very little experience in criminal cases and asked John P. Nelson for assistance. Nelson eventually argued Lombard vs. Louisiana before the Supreme Court in 1963.
Elie then represented Ernest “Dutch” Moriel, who later went on to become the first black mayor of New Orleans. Moriel was running for the state legislature and a lawsuit was brought to keep him from running that stated he didn’t live in the district in which he was running.
“This was really when my reputation exploded,” said Elie. “I won the case.”
When asked if he ever received death threats, Elie mentioned that his office on Dryades Street was bombed, luckily at a time when it was empty.
Elie and his partners moved their offices downtown and after 10 years in business, their partnership dissolved.
“Around that time, there was a group of young African American men and women who had started a chapter of the Black Panthers in New Orleans and there was a major shootout between them and the police,” said Elie. “I got persuaded to represent the Black Panthers.”
According to Elie, it was an unwinnable case but the judge selection was rigged and they wound up with the only black judge presiding over their case.
“We won that case,” said Elie, “mostly by intimidating him.”
According to Elie, anyone who was anyone in the black community was in the courtroom and the judge did not want to appear as though he was not supportive of the cause.
The scariest night of Elie’s life came soon afterward. Elie was in Plaquemine, La., to take part in marches that CORE was holding every day in an effort to desegregate the town. They were all in a church when someone said, “Troopers are coming.”
State troopers rode in on horsesback, spraying tear gas and “out to kill James Farmer,” the founder of CORE. Elie and Farmer ended up in a funeral parlor while a wake was being held. When troopers pounded on the door, demanding to search the funeral home, the owner refused. Farmer was then smuggled out in a casket.
CORE also organized the “freedom rides” through the south to protest segregation on mass transportation. Elie was involved in the planning of the freedom rides, in which CORE activists rode buses throughout the South.
Elie and CORE members met with Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who tried to dissuade them from carrying out the freedom rides, to no avail.
Freedom riders were attacked in Anniston, Ala., with some severely beaten and the bus burned. Jim Peck, a CORE activist who ended up with 50 stitches in his head, came to New Orleans to stay with Elie after the beating. Eli said, “They were much harder on white people who supported the movement than they were on blacks.”
Although he had said he “would never live in the South again”, Elie practiced law in New Orleans for 50 years. He retired after Hurricane Katrina and now divides his time between New Orleans and Portland, Or. He spends his days reading and listening to his extensive music collection and reflecting on a life well-lived. He is currently working on his memoirs.