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Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

NOW HEAR THIS!

spokenword tribute

Adrinda Kelly’s video of Kalamu’s reading at the Oretha program has all but the very end. You can catch the flavor of the words and music.

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Mister Bill called and asked me to write a poem for Oretha, to be presented in a tribute in her honor by The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra on February 22, 2019 at their building located on the corner of Martin Luther King and Oretha Castle Haley Boulevards. Oretha Castle Haley (July 22, 1939 – October 10, 1987) was an iconic New Orleans civil rights veteran and community activist whom Bill Rouselle and I had known and been led by.

MING THE MERCILESS—OUR FIELD GENERAL

 

We knew her as Ming The Merciless

Our nom de guerre for Oretha Castle Haley

Who fiercely led us into battle, often

Against foes we didn’t know secretly opposed us

 

When I was but a handful of years out of short pants

I was the eleventh-grader sitting in at Woolworth’s

Under Ming’s guidance, an ardent warrior against segregation

Ask Mr. Schwegmann, whose lunch counter we confronted

At his new store off Chef Menteur & Paris Road

Along the Industrial Canal in the vast Ninth Ward

The future home turf of the SOUL Civil&Silver Rights organization

Eventually co-led by the Weasel (Sherman Copelin)

And the Bear (Don Hubbard), a CORE veteran,

It took the cunning and brawn of the two of them to match

Oretha’s insightful social and political maneuverings

Schwegmann’s heavy, brown paper supermarket bags

Were much sought for a politician’s slogan or smiling face

As those shopping bags were familiar to many a voter as well

As to school students who religiously used them

To cover their textbooks—some of us even drew big, bold

Purple and crimson declarations of love

Full of intertwining red hearts and roses

As in Alfred loves Angela on those beige bags

 

The major avenue for Black retail shopping, Dryades Street

Was renamed Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in her honor

But long before the name change she was already

Seeing around corners most of us didn’t know

We would have to turn in the course of our long march

Toward long sought political freedom and economic equality

 

Ming declared public education a major battlefield

A fight we ultimately loss in the new millennium

When New Orleans no longer has any public schools left

Under the democratically elected school board’s direction,

The rapacious bandits of privatizing education

Are making a killing commandeering the charter movement

And essentially foreclosing one of only two

Major political/economic foundations of our Black Community

—Containers on ocean-going ships

Destroyed the longshoremen’s union, indeed, I literally

almost cried when I saw the ILA (International Longshoremen’s

Association Hall) falling beneath a wrecking ball, after all

That auditorium was where we Blacks held civic meetings

And proms, concerts and dances, were Otis sang a simple song

And the Royal Dukes of Rhythm played complex big band

Arrangements for our dancing and listening enjoyment

But beyond the merriment stood an institution that

Literally supplied both money and manpower for our

Sixties and Seventies uprising that not only led to numerous

Gigantic gatherings: sports activities, and a plethora of

Conclaves, conventions and exhibitions from the Sugarbowl and

Superbowl to gun shows and automobile roundups

But also supplied economic incentives and a cornucopia of

Money making opportunities, especially for Superdome Services Inc.

A purveyor of maintenance, janitorial, and event staffing

Headed by the Weasel and the Bear, the duo had moved

From political brokerage to economic development

 

Between the school teachers and the longshoremen

And all the institutions that were thereby supported,

From corner stores to mansions in the newly developed

New Orleans East, where else could we go, where else

Were we welcomed, where else could our community

Grow, thrive and develop? Where else in or near New Orleans?

 

That’s why many of us reluctantly but nonetheless valiantly

Took on the overthrow of the all-white school board

That educator Mack Spears first integrated, not insignificant

Considering that the Crescent City was the birthplace of

SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

And Ming made us young knuckleheads understand the

Significance of controlling our own education and the myriad

Of opportunities associated there with, long term strategy

Was Ming’s forte, anyone could win a dustup or even a mayoral

Election, she taught us to go beyond just winning a battle

When there was a protracted struggle to overcome, which is why

Ming was a leader in championing public healthcare,

Saddle-up warriors she commanded and led the charge

Championing public and affordable healthcare and medications,

A battle that sooner or later we all needed to wage

Whether as patient or advocate, or both

 

Ming was on it, her dulcet tones gently, and when necessary,

Forcefully waking us up to our responsibilities and opportunities

Ming The Merciless was, is and always will be a major inspiration

For me and countless other New Orleanians woke and aware

Of what time it really is and what we ought to be doing

To confront evil and advance all that it

Good and righteous in this world

 

All hail Ming The Merciless

All salute Oretha Castle Haley

A woman at the forefront of struggle for

Truth, justice and a truly egalitarian American way

 

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