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The Reverend Albert D'Orlando Fought Racism in New Orleans

Excerpted from a March 3, 1998 New Orleans Times-Picayune article by Mark Schliefstein as reprinted on the website of the annual D'Orlando Lecture on Social Justice.

... The Rev. (Albert) D'Orlando fought racism and segregation for many years and later opposed the Vietnam War. His house and church were firebombed in 1965. "He was a tremendous role model who believed that faith means nothing if you don't put your beliefs into action," said Martha Kegel, former executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He was a New Englander who came South and fought racism, and eventually, he became the conscience of the New Orleans community."

A native of Boston, the Rev. D'Orlando graduated from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., with a master's degree in theology. After his ordination in 1945, he was named the minister of two small churches in New Hampshire. He came to New Orleans in 1950 and almost immediately moved to integrate his Jefferson Avenue church. Although a number of church members resigned, Kegel said, "He made the Unitarian Church into virtually the only place in white New Orleans where whites and blacks could meet together."

In 1956, he helped found the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1958, he was ordered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee after being identified as a member of the Communist Party by a New Hampshire homemaker. After the closed hearing, the Rev. D'Orlando said he had never been a member of the party. "His getting dragged before the committee clearly related to his civil rights stance," Kegel said. "At that time, any person who stood up for civil rights was a communist in (the committee's) eyes."

In 1960, as New Orleans prepared to deal with court-ordered school desegregation, the Rev. D'Orlando had his congregation set up a Freedom Fund to provide legal and other assistance to those fighting for desegregation. Within a few weeks, the fund had collected 25,000 dollars, largely from other Unitarian churches throughout the nation.

Also at his urging, the church's youth group participated in sit-ins at lunch counters on Canal Street, said his daughter, Lissa Dellinger. Two youngsters were arrested and charged with criminal anarchy; they were found guilty of criminal mischief and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Through the Rev. D'Orlando's leadership, the church raised money to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the convictions were thrown out, Dellinger said.

When the first black children integrated white public schools, the church provided financial assistance to white families who continued to send their children to school with the black children. In 1962, the church paid some of the legal expenses of two black students who filed a federal suit to integrate Tulane University. When Tulane officials agreed to admit the students, the church paid their registration fees and for their books. The church later paid the expenses of a New Orleans lawyer who represented civil rights workers in Mississippi.

The Rev. D'Orlando's civil rights activities resulted in many threats to himself and his family, he said in a speech several years ago. "It was not at all unusual for us to receive phone calls at 3 in the morning warning us that if we did not leave the house within 15 minutes, a bomb would destroy our home," he said. At midnight one Saturday in March 1965, his house was fire-bombed while he was working on a sermon he planned to deliver the next morning condemning similar bombings in Alabama. Two months later, the front of his church was destroyed by dynamite. The bombings were two of more than a dozen that occurred in New Orleans that spring. Authorities tied the bombing of his house to members of the United Klans of America, a wing of the Ku Klux Klan. Three men were convicted in the incident and sentenced to five years in prison.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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