HypheNationAn Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Critical Moments Discourse

 

Emory University’s Annual Grace Hamilton Towns Lecture
Brittney Cooper, Emory University




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On Wednesday, April 5, 2006, former Mayor of New Orleans and current President of the National Urban League Marc Morial presented the annual Grace Hamilton Towns Lecture on behalf of the Emory University Department of African American Studies.

Dr. Leslie Harris, chair of African American Studies and a native New Orleanian, opened the evening by reading from on her own narrative journal of the events leading up to and following Katrina. Her poignant portrayal of an African-American family invested in the life of New Orleans, but also torn by a need to literally survive the flooding, sheds more light on the sheer weight of choices that families had to negotiate in the eye of the storm.


Mr. Morial obliged Dr. Harris’ introductory remarks by issuing a call to action, arguing that “each generation is presented with special challenges.” For the Civil Rights Generation, he suggested the Birmingham, Montgomery and Little Rock were critical moments. For our generation, “Katrina is a defining moment.”

Morial’s second key argument was that “the United States of America is the Great Rebuilder.” Consider Hiroshima and Eastern Europe post WWII, and more recently, of course, Iraq. Tactics to aid in the rebuilding process should include direct congressional appropriations, loan guarantees and marshalling the resources of the international community. At the heart of Morial’s suggestions is the notion that U.S. should first and foremost be explicit and intentional in its commitment to rebuild. He cited the cities of San Francisco and

Chicago, suggesting that these two cities were rebuilt after the San Francisco earthquake of 1871 and the Chicago fire of 1906. Prior generations understood the primacy of rebuilding, and as result these two cities are “international cities . . .known for architecture and culture.”
Citing that the destruction in New Orleans is some seven times the land area of Manhattan, Morial argued forcefully that the only question for any of us should be: “what would you want someone to do if it was your hometown?”

Morial also echoed Harris’ sentiments that the destruction in the Gulf Coast was quickly fading from public memory. He suggested that the American public measures events in terms of news cycles, earning cycles, and political cycles, a strategy that makes Americans “a short-attention-span-kind-of-people.”

As out attention fades, however, Morial cautioned “we will be judged 20-25 years from now by whether this rebuilding happens.” In other words, Katrina is both a defining and a critical moment; it is also not simply a political or an economic issue but a morality issue.

While Morial was hesitant to concur with the prevailing readings of Katrina as solely an issue of racism, he argued that this was an issue of race, class and region, citing prejudices about the perceived lack of importance of the “Deep South” and particularly states like Louisiana and Mississippi.

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The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, S415 The Callaway Center, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia 30322-0660
2005 © HypheNation: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Critical Moments Discourse