Lolis Edward Elie, an undaunted civil rights pioneer whose advocacy as a lawyer, protest organizer and negotiator helped propel the racial desegregation of New Orleans, died on Tuesday at his home in the city’s Treme neighborhood. He was 87.
The cause was apparently complications of Parkinson’s disease, said his son, Lolis Eric Elie, a journalist, food historian and filmmaker.
A childhood victim of discrimination growing up in segregated Louisiana, Mr. Elie (pronounced E-lie) vowed that he would never return to the South after experiencing, at 17, relative racial anonymity in New York City, having gone north for a brief stint as a merchant seaman.
But after he was drafted into the Army in 1951, a fellow soldier encouraged him to pursue a legal career once he was discharged. He did, returning home to continue his schooling.
As a newly minted lawyer in the early 1960s, Mr. Elie found himself in the vanguard of a nascent movement to integrate downtown lunch counters and other public accommodations and to boycott stores in a black shopping district where blacks could get only menial jobs.
“When we got to the civil rights movement, I would have to say that the most important thing that came out of it was a rising of the consciousness on the part of African-American people,” he said in a C-SPAN interview in 2003. “The world that I inherited was a world that said white people were superior, and people of African descent were all powerless.”
“What the civil rights movement did was to remove that,” he said. “It raised our consciousness.”
Mr. Elie’s advocacy on behalf of civil rights organizations, individual clients and generations of aggrieved blacks raised white consciousness, too.
In one instance he was the star witness in a lawsuit against Louisiana’s ban on out-of-state lawyers representing criminal defendants. Anthony G. Amsterdam, an emeritus professor at the New York University School of Law, who was a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, recalled Mr. Elie’s powerful testimony.
“On cross-examination,” Professor Amsterdam wrote in an email, “the state’s attorney was dumb enough to ask him: ‘Mr. Elie, is it not true that the condition of Negroes in the State of Louisiana has improved during the past five years?’ Lolis said, ‘Yes, but … ’ And then went on to give a two-hour answer that was easily the finest, most fiery civil-rights speech I have ever heard — in court, in church, or anywhere else.”
“The judges were enthralled,” the professor continued. “They sat there drinking it all in. They didn’t even call a break for lunch when the usual lunchtime hour came in the middle of his answer.”
Mr. Elie was born in New Orleans, a block from the Mississippi River, on Jan. 9, 1930, according to his family. (His birth certificate says Feb. 9, 1928, but the family believes it is incorrect.)
His father, Theophile, was a truck driver who did not encourage his son to continue his education beyond the Gilbert Academy, a Methodist high school. His mother, the former Mary Elizabeth Villere, worked part time as a maid.
Mr. Elie spent six months as a merchant seaman before landing in New York, where he shined shoes and delivered stationery by subway. He was drafted and inducted into the Army in mid-1951 (the Army had been desegregated in 1948). He was trained as a clerk-typist and befriended by an Italian-American soldier who had also felt the sting of discrimination and who urged Mr. Elie to one day get a law degree, as he had.
“The desegregation of the armed services is possibly one of the most significant things that has happened in this country,” Mr. Elie told Robert Penn Warren in “Who Speaks for the Negro?” (1965).
He enrolled in Howard University on the G.I. Bill before transferring to Dillard University in New Orleans, from which he graduated. He went on to graduate from the Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans shortly after the school had been desegregated.
His marriage to the former Gerri Moore, a school principal and university professor, ended in divorce. In addition to their son, who was a columnist for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and story editor for the HBO drama “Treme,” he is survived by their daughter, Dr. Migel Elizabeth Elie; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
With his two black law partners, Nils R. Douglas and Robert F. Collins, Mr. Elie represented the Consumers’ League of Greater New Orleans in its 1960 boycott of white store owners on a strip of what is now Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
After enlisting a criminal defense lawyer, John P. Nelson Jr., who was white, the legal team successfully argued for charges to be dropped against members of the Congress of Racial Equality — Oretha Castle was one — who had engaged in lunch-counter protests in a case that was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court. (Mr. Nelson carried the appeal to the Supreme Court.)
Mr. Elie helped negotiate desegregation agreements with merchants and successfully defended Ernest N. Morial, known as Dutch, against a challenge to his residency when he sought to become the first black member of the State House of Representatives.
But Mr. Elie also became frustrated with the pace of equal opportunity, at one time embracing black nationalism and Malcolm X.
Mr. Elie, who retired shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, was reflective about what more than four decades of advocacy for civil rights had accomplished.
“I think what it effectively did was create a middle class,” he told WWL-TV in 1997. “For example, in 1959 when I finished law school, there were about 10 African-American lawyers in the city of New Orleans and probably 30 in the state. There are hundreds now, hundreds of doctors.
“On the other hand, you have more people in prison now than ever. You have more African-American males in prison than you have in college, so it’s better for some, much worse for others.”
*Lolis Elie, a civil rights lawyer who helped to desegregate New Orleans, was born in New Orleans (January 9).
Lolis Elie (1930- ) is a civil rights attorney. A native of New Orleans, Elie attended Howard University and Dillard University, and later graduated in 1959 from Loyola Law School. After graduation, Elie started a legal practice with Loyola classmate Nils Douglas and Louisiana State University Law School graduate Robert Collins. In 1960 the New Orleans chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) asked Elie and his firm to represent CORE after a sit-in campaign. Elie and his firm defended CORE chapter President Rudy Lombard and three others who were arrested for staging a sit-in protest at the lunch counter of the McCrory Five and Ten Cent Store in New Orleans. They appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court which, in its decision, declared the city's ban on sit-ins unconstitutional. Elie's firm also provided free legal counsel to the Consumers' League, a group of black civil rights activists who protested discriminatory employment practices. Elie was one of seven supporters of the Freedom Riders who met with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1961, when Kennedy encouraged them to shift their efforts to registering black Southerners to vote. Elie later organized a law firm with white attorney Al Bronstein. The pair argued civil rights cases and also established a training program for new black lawyers.