Having said Good Morning and Good Evening all my life I just learned it is a New Orleans custom. But, is it a good name for Lee Circle? Civil Rights activist Jerome Smith thinks so. This is not environmental but it is the third post on street names as we have suggested, and lost, with Bulbancha Circle to go back to our early heritage.
At a Louis Armstrong show in New York in the early 1960s, New Orleans civil-rights activist Jerome Smith walked backstage and uttered his customary greeting. “Good evening, everybody. How y’all doing?” he said. A moment later, Armstrong’s voice boomed in return, “Hey, you got to be from my place!” For people who live elsewhere, that small gesture — bidding someone a good morning or evening — constitutes a calling card instantly identified with New Orleans. As a child in the 6th and 7th Ward, Smith was taught to greet anyone he passed on the street. “It’s not something I take lightly,” he said, describing how he honored that tradition even as he traveled across the Deep South with a tenacious, tight-knit Congress Of Racial Equality group from New Orleans that led Freedom Rides, integrated lunch counters and public facilities and led voter-registration drives. Smith, now 82, has come to believe that the city’s greetings are so essential that the former Lee Circle should be renamed “Good Morning, Good Evening Circle.”
The city has already changed some street names and more will be done in the near future. The toughest one so far has been Lee Circle, where Lee no longer stands on top of it. The proposed name was Égalité Circle after the first choice, for Leah Chase, was given to another street and Harmony Circle and Tivoli Circle, the original name, were discarded.
Though the commission already gave its recommendations to the Council, there is still room for Smith’s suggestion, said Sue Mobley, co-chair of the panel of experts for the Renaming Commission. “The process throughout has been shaped by public comment, proposals and feedback — and rarely have they been so thoughtful or from someone so worthy.” Mobley said Smith’s proposal is “a moving reminder of why I love this place.” There will be many future opportunities for people to weigh in on the proposed names, Mobley explained. Council members, who can add names, will discuss the full list in public hearings and vote. The Council’s approved recommendations will then move to the City Planning Commission, which will also hold hearings before sending them back to the Council for the final vote.
Smith does not plan to campaign for his choice rather just wants it to be out for the public to see. Égalité, French for Equality, the current choice is to remember the Civil Rights activists and also those pushing for liberty in Haiti and France, two countries that helped shape New Orleans culture. Smith’s proposed name celebrates the spirit of New Orleans.
“The essential spirit of good in our city is echoed in the daily courtesies of ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Evening,’” Smith said. “It’s a sort of grace that goes beyond any physical or social differences, that crosses all boundaries.” His proposal comes as no surprise to the thousands of children who played sports on Hunter’s Field or learned about civil rights at the annual Tamborine & Fan Summer Camps at the Treme Community Center under the watchful eye of Smith, whom is known as “Big Duck” because of the line of children who are always following him. On both side of the Treme Center’s long hallway, the wall is hung with children’s paintings titled “Good morning” or “Good evening.” Stopping to look at the art, New Orleans natives often tell stories about being scolded by parents for not saying “good morning” or “good evening” to a neighbor they’d passed that day. And when Hurricane Katrina scattered New Orleanians across the country, the laments of the dislocated often included a telling observation: “People here don’t speak to you.” “You have to find ways to celebrate humanity,” Smith said. “And I think through some way, we have been able to celebrate each other here, through our greetings.”
Smith, a member of CORE, was beaten in 1961 in Mississippi and went to New York to recover. There he met Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and was mentored by civil rights luminaries like actors Marlon Brando, writer James Baldwin and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Smith later returned to New Orleans where he worked with youth and the cities customs and traditions.
For decades, he has told summer-camp children about the fateful day that he and other CORE members traveled to McComb to integrate an interstate bus station. A chance encounter before the beating also cemented his belief that his hometown’s signature greetings hold almost a sacred power. After getting off the bus in McComb, Smith stepped to the nearest newspaper box, his eyes locking with those of a White man standing beside it. Smith extended his hand, saying, “Good morning, how are you doing?” The man froze, Smith said, and looked at him strangely. Smith then walked into the bus station with his paper, where the mob pounced on him and beat him bloody, fracturing his skull. But the man did not step forward to hurt him — likely because of their brief exchange, Smith said. “This man, he stayed on the wall,” he said. “He had his brass knuckles in his hand that he never used. He did not touch me. He did not touch me.” “It’s like Dr. (Martin Luther) King used to say, ‘There is a spirit of good that exists in all,’” Smith said. “And at times, you can enter the depths of the spirit of a person and transcend the negative — when that happens, he will no longer go against you. You become committed to the humanity of each other.’”
Because of his history, Smith has stature to make this name suggestion. Obviously we will see what happens with all the suggestions as the months progress.