Government & Politics

Clarkson offends crowd with remarks praising '50s as a golden age, refuses to apologize

Update 9/1: Clarkson issued a statement Wednesday night stating that she is “sorry that there were a handful of people in the crowd that didn’t appreciate what I’ve done for them.”

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Marguerite Blunt, 91, remembers the 1950s as a time when she couldn’t enter restaurants through the front door, or try on a dress before buying it.

“They figured you weren’t clean enough,” recalled Blunt, a Creole and a lifelong New Orleanian.

For Blunt and the millions of non-white Americans who survived segregation, the years before the civil-rights era were fraught with daily injustices as obvious as having to sit at the back of the bus or send your child to an inferior school, and as subtle as being forced to put tissue paper on your head before trying on a hat.

“We had to abide by the rules,” Blunt said.

Given that history, public officials around the country have often avoided using that period as a reference point. Especially in the South. Not, however, New Orleans City Council President Jackie Clarkson.

Clarkson, 76, has been known to invoke the 1940s and‘50s as the city’s halcyon days. Sugary memories of her youth in Algiers, and her father, Johnny Brechtel, who helped found New Orleans Recreation Department in the late 1940s pepper council meetings. One familiar anecdote involves a 1949 issue of Life magazine wherein her father’s work with NORD was recognized for its “progressive” approach to urban recreation.

Rarely in her reminiscences does Clarkson acknowledge that the city was, at that time, building separate playground for black and white children. Most recently, Clarkson spoke of the era while praising Mayor Mitch Landrieu at a public meeting in Lakeview.

“I never dreamed I would stand here and say this city is on the best roll I’ve been since I was a child,” she told a racially mixed crowd. “For those of you who are also my age, is this not just like the ’40s and ’50s?

“It’s that good, and we are back on that roll.”

In this video, Clarkson’s remarks of Aug. 24 precede three clips from Tuesday night. They show the complaint from an audience member, Clarkson’s introduction to the crowd and then Clarkson’s response to the crowd.

While the comment gained little notice beyond a few mentions on Twitter, it gained new life last night when an eastern New Orleans woman asked the mayor to tell the council president that black people did not appreciate it.

“The things Jackie’s thrilled about … the ’50s and ’60s were not glory days for me and the rest of the black community,” said Pearl Cantrelle, President of Kenilworth Civic Improvement Association, speaking at another meeting on the 2012 budget.

“I don’t like sitting on the back of the bus or picketing on the steps of City Hall.”

Cantrelle’s comments drew applause and cheers across the vast Household of Faith sanctuary. And minutes later, Clarkson was greeted with boos from the mostly black crowd after she was introduced to the crowd, having arrived a bit tardy for the meeting. As the catcalls died down and she took her seat, Clarkson can be heard on a video recording telling an aide that she’d never been booed in her life.

“We’ve wasted our time. Let’s go,” she muttered to the aide, though they both stayed.

The mayor, however, apparently didn’t hear Clarkson and decided, a few moments later, to hand off a microphone to the notoriously voluble councilwoman, so that she could explain herself to Cantrelle. And explain herself she did.

Clarkson, wearing one of her trademark printed silk neck scarves and a bright blue suit, began her speech with an earnest plea for the crowd of roughly 300 to understand that she would “never do anything to offend you.” She had “opened a business out here in the ’70s and always believed in you,” she recalled.

After Hurricane Katrina, she had gone on “international television and said ‘bring back the east, that’s a valuable part of our city’,” she said. “If that wasn’t enough to prove how much I believe in you…I don’t know what else to do.

“I’ve been out here as an At-Large Councilwoman, anytime there’s been anything important and anytime I’ve been invited,” she said.

As she continued well beyond the 30 seconds that Landrieu suggested she use for a response, angry voices began to rise around her and Clarkson’s tone hardened.

“Excuse me, excuse me – no, I’m going to finish,” she said. “I’ve never been treated like this in my lifetime, and I won’t have it.”

“I was referring to my childhood,” Clarkson continued. “I had a very happy childhood. I’m not apologizing for that.”

“Please don’t be so rude,” she scolded the crowd before explaining that her “father’s best friend in the 1940s” was Morris Jeff Sr., “a black Ph.D. who I adored.”

At that point, a woman in the back of sanctuary can be seen in the video standing to tell Clarkson that the she and others in the crowd “don’t want to hear this” and encouraging the mayor to get on with the budget meeting.

Nonetheless, Clarkson kept talking. She loved Jeff like an uncle, so she “never thought about that being offensive,” she said.

Clarkson concluded on a defensive note.

“I have defended you,” she said, “I don’t appreciate the treatment.”

Though Landrieu, upon recovering the microphone, said that Clarkson had apologized, it is unclear if she did so.

After Landrieu commends her for apologizing, she can be heard on video saying, “I didn’t apologize.”

In a statement made to Fox8  following the release of The Lens video, Clarkson offered some clarification on what she was sorry for. ” I’m sorry that there were a handful of people in the crowd that didn’t appreciate what I’ve done for them,” she said.

Following the confrontation, the meeting went on much like other budget meetings held by the mayor. Residents asked Landrieu to prioritize fighting blight, bringing retail to their community and reopening a hospital in eastern New Orleans.  Landrieu ended his closing remarks with an offhand reminder to the crowd that Clarkson was his friend.

“I love Jackie,” he said, speaking to no one to particular as people began to file out.


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  • mg

    What a surreal, rage-inducing and yet too predictable scene. The nature of denial from Clarkson and her token use of a single black man whom she “adored” to stand in for the collective oppression of black folks in this city and across the nation is a classic strategy to avoid an analysis of racism and one’s own role in, and privileges due to, a racist system.

    No one is likely to challenge that Clarkson had a “happy childhood” in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, her response is precisely enraging because she is unable to recognize that she had a comfortable childhood while many, mostly poor white and black folks of all classes, faced various injustices and limited opportunities. If she were a regular resident unable to discern the long-standing legacies of class and racial inequality, I might be more understanding and take up a dialogue.

    But she is the second most powerful elected politician in New Orleans. Her inability to see the differences between her own privileged upbringing and the experiences of others should be an enormous warning – a canary in the coal mine – for the residents of this city who are impacted by her legislation.

    Shouting down an audience of voters full of counter-experiences with her microphone, Clarkson wears 1950s-colored glasses, which leave her seeing Pleasantville(without color, poverty or history) while the rest of us struggle along without a public hospital.

    Clarkson sets the tone for the city council, our most “democratic” local government body. This is part of the reason why New Orleans has not created city-wide priorities to diminish or eliminate race and class inequalities. Surely these are enormous issues to tackle, which need humane and creative solutions and programs to open up access and opportunity, and dismantle “good ‘ol boy” networks (read:families long involved in politics and public office like Cynthia Hedge-Morrell) from which Clarkson descends.

    As a moment, Clarkson’s reticence to apologize for universalizing her happy white childhood perfectly embodies the infantile nature of the conversation on race and class in official and public meetings. If political leaders are even desired (rather than a tradition we’ve inherited), they must rise to the challenge of the present and the impending future rather than clinging to an ignorant inadequate notion of the past.

    Landrieu’s final pathetic plea completes the tragic surrealism of the evening, flailing to maintain the crowd’s faith in Clarkson through his personal friendship and love.

    As we file out, we notice your words no longer have meaning and, though not lies, are patronizing to our intelligence of how this game works. We were there because you have the public’s money ransom and we told you our needs and our dreams for our children, hoping someone’s there to show the rest, who could not go, how you’ve given us a nibble, but never a full slice of the promise, of what we’re due.

  • Matt Davis

    The article in LIFE magazine has been archived at Google Books:

    And this is from an article I wrote for Gambit about the NORD issue, quoting Clarkson on her father’s role in setting up the department…


    ” NORD was once a national success story. New Orleans City Council vice-president Jackie Clarkson’s father, the late Johnny Brechtel, was NORD’s co-founder, and she can recall the agency’s heyday. In her youth, Clarkson was a NORD swimmer and lifeguard.

    ??”NORD was like a religion in our household,” she says. “My mother had to cook for NORD. We lived NORD, and loved it. Loved what it stood for.”

    ??Clarkson recalls the early NORD meetings around her family’s dining room table in Algiers between her father and Lester Lautenschlaeger, then chairman of the board at Tulane University, Gernon Brown, coach of Jesuit High School, and Dr. Morris Jeff, athletic director at Xavier University. The four men pitched the idea of the agency to then-state Rep. deLesseps “Chep” Morrison when Morrison ran successfully for mayor in 1946. They saw it as a way of heading off a nationwide rise in post-war juvenile delinquency.

    ??Morrison established the agency in 1947, and it was written up in the Sept. 5, 1949 issue of LIFE magazine under the headline “LIFE Congratulates New Orleans — Its Children’s Recreation Program Is The Most Progressive In The U.S.”

    ??”All this summer, in the big, sprawling city of New Orleans, 75,000 children have been having the time of their lives,” reads the introduction to the six-page article. “Unlike so many city kids, they have not had to hang around the streets. They have plenty of places to play, pools to swim in, shows to watch, and a schedule of free activities as full as a woman’s pocketbook. They are beneficiaries of NORD.”

    ??Another picture from the LIFE article serves as a reminder of just how much times have changed in New Orleans — and that the past was not entirely rosy. Its caption: “At a track meet a Negro girl flies through the air in a broad jump. She is competing at NORD’s new Shakespeare playground for Negroes … NORD recreation facilities are segregated. Negroes have eight pools and 21 playgrounds.”

    ??”It didn’t matter if you were Uptown, downtown, rich or poor,” Clarkson recalls. “You either volunteered, coached a team, or wrote a check. NORD was public and private, it was black and white — though separate — and it was athletic as well as artistic.

    ??”My father never built a white playground without building a black playground,” she adds.”

  • P. M. C.

    This is a very sad time for our New Orleans community. The second hightest elected person in our city, Jackie Clarkson, makes racist comments to a mostly white community and then defends it to a mostly black community by making more racist remards. She just doesn’t get it. No, she didn’t apoligize to anyone; she didn’t because she didn’t think she had said anything wrong. She really didn’t see that during the 40s and 50s we were living with legalized segregation. Those were her glory days and she can offer no regrets about that. She could only offer the name of two people, her father and a black city worker as having been friends. And, how she had a white business in a 95% white community(New Orleans East or just, the East)in the 70s. But, Jackie never said what happened to that business when the East turned 95% black.

    Poor, poor Jackie. Please stop telling the story about how your daddy found the New Orleans Recreation Dept (NORD) and his good friend Dr. Morris F. X. Jeff, Sr. Everytime you need to explain how non-racist you are you find it necessary to tell that story. Everyone in this city has heard it a million times and are real tired of hearing it. She never says that when her daddy was starting NORD, he built white parks and black parks. His good friend, Dr. Jeff was given the black parks. The black parks with used and hand-me-down equipment from the good old white folks. ‘Oh Yes, the glory days.’

    So, Jackie I have only a few things to say to you: We are living in 2011 sweetie and we ain’t, as much as you would love us to, going back to the 40s, 50s, 60, 70s… or anywhere else you’d like to send us. Just like your memory, your time has come and gone. And, so should you.

  • EJ

    Jackie is flat out clueless. She has no idea why she is offending people, and that is a hard fact to swallow considering she is the president of our city council. And the statement she released defending herself only goes to prove she’s clueless. To have the audacity to put the blame back on the people and say that she is sorry that there are people that don’t appreciate what she has done for them?


  • My father never built a white playground without building a black playground

    Jackie Clarkson fondly endorses doctrine of Separate but Equal in 2010

  • Jackie is flat out clueless. She has no idea why she is offending people, and that is a hard fact to swallow considering she is the president of our city council.

    Why is that hard to swallow? Do you know a whole host of other Southern whites who were rasied in the 40’s and 50’s who really understand why people get upset when they talk about their awesome and utopian childhood?

    Because I don’t, and I’ve been around folks like that my whole life. In my experience, 9 times out of 10, they see any attempt to insert historical accuracy into that era as some attempt to demonize them personally and/or discredit everything they grew up thinking was good in the world. It never matters how gently you put it, either.

    And it is especially difficult for individuals who believe in their gut that they have done a great deal to not be racist in word or in action, and have used their life’s work to make things better for others.

    But when the country is currently consumed by individuals whose specific stated goal is to rewrite history and take us back to the “good ole’ days,” while claiming that people who think something else “hate” or “apologize for America,” I just can’t get very excited over Clarkson’s stereotypical cluelessness on this.

  • Natalie

    I am a resident of New Orleans East and I did not attend the meeting, but after reviewing video and reading newspaper articles, I understand both sides of the issue.

    As a resident, I have seen nothing that Clarkson has done for the East recently. She only appears at photo ops. With her, Fielkow, Morrell and Johnson on the City Council, we should always have four (4) votes to approve matters relating to Eastern New Orleans. I have not seen her nor Fielkow fight with passion for the hospital, retail shopping, theaters, parks, coffee shops and other “quality of life” venues for us. If they have, it has not been with the zeal that they fight for Algiers, Saints, MLB complex, Federal City, etc. I want no favors from Jackie Clarkson; I pay TAXES and I want everything that Lakeview, Uptown, Algiers, and the French Quarter have in order to have the same “quality of life”.

  • JW

    A bit of bias by the writer in repeatedly using the phrase “Halcyon Days,” to describe Clarkson depiction of that time. She never used that phrase, which would imply that all was wonderful. She recalls that time and uses the phrase, “on a roll,” which could apply to many things, clearly in this context to the economy. “Halcyon Days?” Hardly.

  • FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL let’s us put citizens’ ancestries behind us and start working together. Jackie was right about the overall status of the City of New Orleans in the 40’s and 50’s. The evil existed in the fact that one had to face the ugly division created by signs that eliminated the rights of others to sit anywhere on a bus, use public facilities anywhere, eat anywhere, etc. That was eliminated by laws. However, the laws cannot creat a city like New Orleans once was. It is only a united citizenship, who will step away from the issue of ancestry and step forward into the 21st Century and create in unison that one thing we all want – the great new Nouveau New Orleans. The horrible days of segregation must be used as a lesson of hatred and division and we all must say that cannot exist in any way, shape, or form. We all, together, must step up to the bat and for once in our lifetime hit a homerun that will result in the New Orleans WE all want. To those who made the remarks against Ms. Clarkson, ask yourself what Martin Luther King would have said and what he would be doing today if he were a citizen of New Orleans today.

  • CKG

    It’s worth noting that yesterday the Mayor’s office suddenly changed the venue of next week’s District C Budget meeting from the Treme Center to a hotel in the French Quarter.

  • I’m all for moving forward, but that can’t be done by pretending that our ancestries don’t have anything to do with the economic disparities that still plague us. It was the centuries of racial segregation that produced a lot of the problems we have in schools and neighborhoods and work places today. Our shared history in this city has more than a little bit to do with why one of the nation’s poorest cities also has one of the nation’s wealthiest white communities.

    So I will move on, and I will take seriously others who say “let’s put this behind us” once they acknowledge that moving on can’t happen without righting the wrongs of the past that created – and sustain – the entrenched problems that persist in N.O. today.

    MLK was all about working together to move forward, but he pulled no punches when it came to addressing social and human injustices; and neither should we.

  • Bro Keith “X” Hudson

    Clarkson, as other racist in this city are always speaking on the past, with things were “separate, and
    not equal” but in their sick minds, they thought it was equal, because they didn’t endure the brunt of the racist act. Clarkson, is just like Peggy Wilson, she is so embedded in racism, that she can talk about
    it, and NOTHING will happen to her, because she’s so
    deep in it. No BLACK in office will stand up to her, for fear of losing their place. So, she can say these
    things, without fear of political retribution.

  • m

    “I’m sorry that there were a handful of people in the crowd that didn’t appreciate what I’ve done for them,” she said.


    Wow… What a piece of work. Maybe she doesn’t appreciate the fact that the people of this city pay her salary.

  • Good point, m. This goes deeper than racism. The woman is a self-involved narcissist.

  • karl hungus

    Everyone knows what a douchebag she is, and yet she keeps getting elected to city council….tells you all you need to know about this place.

    She is a worthless piece of fecal matter, she should be flushed repeatedly down the toilet.

  • zyggie

    Voice your displeasure in the polls. Ms. Clarkson was incorrect in her speech. Really, we should be grateful for any crumbs she throws to any community she represents? Vote. This indicates what she’s really thinking and doing. Vote!