Review: A More Noble Cause
Rachel L. Emanuel and Alexander P. Tureaud Jr. A More Noble Cause: A. P. Tureaud and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Louisiana: A Personal Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8071-3793-2.
Rachel L. Emanuel and Alexander P. Tureaud, Jr. have joined forces to co-author a biography of Louisiana’s most notable twentieth-century civil rights attorney, Alexander Pierre Tureaud. Their research and recollections are supplemented by a series of oral history interviews with the venerable attorney recorded by the late University of New Orleans professor Joseph Logsdon.
Tureaud was born in New Orleans in 1899. As a young man he sought better opportunities outside the Jim Crow South. He traveled first to Chicago, then New York, before finally settling in Washington, D.C., where he landed a civil service job as a clerk in the U.S. Department of Justice’s law library. By enrolling in evening classes, Tureaud finished high school, took college courses, and ultimately entered Howard University’s law school where he completed his degree in 1925. At that time, Howard had trained more than 75 percent of all African American lawyers in the United States.
During this period Tureaud also became involved with the NAACP. Because of his commitment to achieving racial justice and equality, Tureaud chose to return to New Orleans in 1926. As an adult Tureaud was very formal, referred to by his last name even by close friends and family members. At court, he used his initials A. P. to thwart the common, disrespectful Jim Crow practice of referring to African Americans by their first name.
Though he worked doggedly throughout the 1930s to build a law practice, this was not easy. Even the local NAACP chose to use white lawyers, believing they would be more successful within the Jim Crow judicial system. With persistence and patience, Tureaud challenged and ultimately changed this policy. He continued to work in a federal civil service job until 1942, when he dedicated himself to the practice of law full time. Subsequently, Tureaud served as lead council for a dizzying number of Louisiana civil rights cases. His legal victories helped to achieve “integrated schools, universities, buses, parks, and public buildings” in Louisiana (ix). He also fought long and hard to secure voting rights and to equalize the salaries of teachers regardless of race. Tureaud accepted cases not only in New Orleans, but also in the most rural parts of the state where he and his plaintiffs literally risked life and limb in the push to achieve even a modicum of social justice and de jure racial equality.
Tureaud’s story is a critically important one, especially in Louisiana history. The authors have done a particularly good job of putting the nuanced circumstances of his New Orleans Creole heritage into context. In this instance, Creole is used to describe mixed-race people, often with light skin, who were descended from informal unions of whites, slaves, and free people of color in the colonial and antebellum periods.
Tureaud was proud of his Creole heritage and his ancestors from both sides of the color line. He also identified with Creole activists like the members of the Committee of Citizens who engineered and fought the landmark case, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). After the disappointing outcome in Plessy, even elite, educated, and light skinned Creole people were legally lumped in with their darker-skinned African American counterparts. In response, four of Tureaud’s own sisters left the family and passed into the white community. Tureaud could also have crossed the color line but he chose, instead, to identify with the Creole and Negro communities. Later in life, Tureaud self-identified as “black” instead of “African American,” since, for him, the latter term was neither descriptive nor accurate.
Tureaud was also initially uncomfortable with the public protests of the 1960s. Despite his misgivings, his commitment to pushing for change led him to take the case of student activists from Southern University who had been arrested and later expelled for sitting in at a segregated lunch counter in Baton Rouge. Tureaud won a victory for the students in Garner v. Louisiana (1961) which “was the U.S. Supreme Court’s first decision concerning lunch counter sit-ins” (240).
In their attempt to be thorough, the authors provide a welter of specific details about Tureaud’s personal life and institutional affiliations. Some of it, like the painful inside story of A. P. Tureaud Jr.’s experiences as the first African American undergraduate to attend LSU, is instructive, unforgettable, and available no place else. Other details, such as those related to Tureaud’s institutional and professional affiliations, are sometimes distracting and might better have been consigned to footnotes.
More troubling are the significant number of historical inaccuracies in the book. Pages four and five are riddled with errors large and small. They include the claim that most slaves were “freed by the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863” (4). That was not the case in Louisiana because the Proclamation applied only to slaves in Confederate-held areas. Another example occurs when the authors write that William Tecumseh Sherman resigned his post at the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy “to lead the Union Army” (129). Sherman ultimately became an important Union officer, but his initial attempt to enter service on the Union side was rejected, and he worked in private industry for several months before entering the U.S. Army as a colonel.
The presence of so many small errors of fact is particularly troubling in a book produced by a university press, since such manuscripts generally receive a close and careful reading from other scholars. These errors will distract and confound the knowledgeable reader, and make it inadvisable to assign the book for classroom use. Sadly, such errors will also misinform those seeking an introduction to this critically important era in the state and nation’s history
Tureaud’s decades-long and sometimes dangerous commitment to change Louisiana law and society is an important lesson to offer to young people. All readers can learn a great deal from the lifetime of courage and effort it took to bring about racial and social change.
This book succeeds as a loving tribute filled with the kind of detail about Tureaud’s personal and family life not available elsewhere. Errors of fact aside, it certainly serves this purpose well, while also complementing the standard history of civil rights in Louisiana, Race and Democracy by Adam Fairclough (1999).