Artist: Rachel Cockrill
Storyteller: Lauren Lastrapes
Most famous for being the group that urged Homer Plessy to violate segregation laws on a train in 1892, the Comité des Citoyens was a group founded by Rodolphe Desdunes and Louis Martinet, with aid and advice from Aristide Mary. Each of these men were engaged in the intellectual work and activism required to resist dangerous forces afoot in the late nineteenth century, forces that would (further) diminish the full humanity of black citizens in the post-Reconstruction period. The Comité des Citoyens was a voice in support of an empowered form of black identity that its members felt was slipping away as Americanization gained a firmer grasp on postbellum New Orleans. As current New Orleans activists win a long battle to remove monuments that empower the legacy of enslavement, and that memorialize direct action by Redeemers against the Reconstruction government in Louisiana, perhaps we can memorialize instead the collective effort of people who resisted the reductive thinking that is at the heart of American white supremacy. Members of the Comité des Citoyens were militant, recalcitrant, and defiant. In their newspaper, The Crusader, Desdunes speaks to these values of the Comité as he addresses these words to “Judge Ferguson and allies” in 1893: “No theory of white supremacy, no method of lynching, no class legislation, no undue disqualification of citizenship, no system of enforced ignorance, no privileged classes at the expense of others can be tolerated, and, much less, openly encouraged by any citizen who loves justice, law, and right” (Logsdon and Bell 1992:258). And in his 1911 book presenting prominent Creole residents of New Orleans, Desdunes makes clear the radicalism of his people and his history—of our people and our history—when he says: “It is more noble and dignified to fight, no matter what, than to show a passive attitude of resignation. Absolute submission augments the oppressor’s power and creates doubt about the feelings of the oppressed” (Logsdon and Bell 1992:261). Our monuments should celebrate the Creole radicalism that is a fundamental part of our history.