When I read the June 7th David Brooks column in The New York Times, I thought of my longtime friend and mentor, Felicia Kahn, who died at age 91, on June 21.
Brooks introduced me and I am sure most of his readers to a new slang term, wokeness. Those who are woke persons may well be right about social and economic justice, but their angry judgment does not usually bring positive change. People either nod their heads in agreement or scowl, but either way nothing usually changes.
Wokeness is to wave an accusing, put-down, unforgiving finger at those who practice various kinds of injustice, especially racism. Brooks believes that what’s more likely brings change is a welcoming hand that reaches out and says, “Come along with me, and we together will find that social and economic justice we can support.”
From a very young age, Felicia showed us that welcoming hand and invited us all to join her in seeking social and economic justice, especially in regard to women’s rights. Come along, William, come along all liberals and potential liberals, she seemed to say. Join me in standing up for those society has put down and/or largely ignored.
I also think of the educator, John Dewey and his wisdom, when I think of Felicia. Dewey taught us a century ago that “people tend to support what they help to create.” With her welcoming hand, Felicia asked so many of us to help create strategies with her for building a just world. And, with people like Felicia, the justice-seeking effort grew!
In her memorable eulogy at the funeral on Monday, June 25th at Temple Sinai, Anita Zervigon-Hakes told wonderful stories about her mentor and the mentor to so many of us liberals. In her talk, Anita mixed in stories that brought good laughs that Felicia herself would have appreciated.
She was born in 1926 and raised in an affluent, uptown Jewish family. As a teen, she saw Hitler killing Jews across Europe, and she saw her beloved United States, because of our widespread anti-Semitism, refusing entry to Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.
As Felicia matured, she lost no time seeing injustice all around her, around us, not only anti-Semitism but biting personal racism (bigotry) and the institutional and cultural racism that is only more insidious. She saw women—who deserved equality and full respect from all of us—put down by an unquestioning and often hostile voting public.
Early on, she devoted her life to correcting these wrongs. In the mid-1960s during the civil rights era, she joined the New Orleans Coalition, one of the first multi-racial groups fighting to integrate our city’s restaurants and bars and working always for women’s rights. With the Coalition, she helped elect Mayors Moon Landrieu and Dutch Morial as well as other progressive men and women seeking political office.
In Anita’s words, she was a “five-foot wonder.” She loved learning, loved Democratic politics, whether it was licking stamps, running for office or making phone calls. Along with her work for Democrats, she was also a leader in the League of Women Voters, helping to get out the vote in many city, state, and national elections. In all justice-seeking efforts, she was what her friends call “a workhorse.”
While she pushed hard for her views, she was ready to work with others who had different strategies for what must be done to build our country as a place where all of us can feel at home. She held out that welcoming hand. It didn’t hurt that she was such an appealing person, but it was clear to those who knew her well that her charm was not important to her; she wanted to do good work and use her great mind.
In 1976, she was appointed as a Jimmy Carter member of the Rules Committee at the Democratic National Convention. Two bids for the Louisiana Legislature fell short. One was to 23-year-old Mary Landrieu. Felicia was a good sport about losing. Instead of retaliating, she reached out to Mary and others with whom she may have disagreed and helped us all to move along on the justice-seeking road. As she became older, her energy level seemed only to grow. At age 90, she was the second-oldest delegate to the Democratic National Convention, her tenth.
Well, she wasn’t perfect. She did have her faults too. Here is Anita again: “I loved her so much, but she could be downright exasperating. Just ask those of us who gave her rides to many events because it scared us for her to drive!”
Felicia Kahn left her mark. In 2016, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Louisiana Democratic Party. This year, you can imagine how proud she was when Latoya Cantrell became our first female mayor.
On hearing of Felicia’s death, Mayor Cantrell said she was “heartbroken.” She spoke of Felicia as “an icon and an institution for generations, and an inspiration for me as a champion of equal rights and women’s rights. Her legacy is hard to overstate. I am grateful to have known her and to have benefited from her relentless efforts on behalf of the women of this country.”
Political consultant Cheron Brylski said that the political scene will be “less fun without Felicia.” And in our mean-spirited, polarized, angry society, we sure need some fun in politics once in a while, as well as that welcoming hand.
Felicia did not settle for being woke. She brought about positive change.
The Rev. William Barnwell, an Episcopal priest, is the author of numerous books tracing his evolution as a Christian, from boyhood in segregated Charleston, S.C., to the continuing struggle against racism in New Orleans today. His latest is “Angels in the Wilderness: Young and Black in New Orleans and Beyond.”
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