Louisiana: Civil Rights, Disasters, and Diversification

Civil Rights, Disasters, and Diversification

About one third of Louisianans are African American, and their struggle for civil rights has been long and bitter. The move toward integration following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against racial segregation in public schools was difficult, and continuing resistance to social change is reflected in the careers of David Duke and others.

Hurricanes and flooding are recurrent dangers for the state. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy killed 74 and caused property damage in excess of $1 billion. In 1969, Hurricane Camille was even more destructive, ravaging Louisiana and neighboring states and killing 256 people. In Apr., 1973, the Mississippi River rose to its highest level recorded in Louisiana and, with its tributaries, flooded more than 10% of the state.

Louisiana enjoyed an oil boom in the early 1980s but then suffered following the 1986 collapse of oil prices. The state's unemployment rate rose to the highest in the nation, and economic distress grew. The slump placed a great burden on the tourist industry and led to increased efforts to diversify the economy. The state's recent environmental woes have largely arisen from the fact that natural erosion, oil exploitation, and river control projects have severely degraded its freshwater marshlands, especially in the delta of the Mississippi.

Once a solidly Democratic state, Louisiana's politics have turned increasingly conservative since the 1990s; in 1990 former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke made a strong showing as an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. In 1987, Democrat Edwin E. Edwards was defeated in his reelection bid by a conservative Democrat (who later switched to the Republican party), Buddy Roemer. Before Roemer's conversion, all but one of Louisiana's governors since 1877 had been Democratic. In the 1991 gubernatorial election, Roemer finished behind Edwards and Duke, who faced each other in a runoff, which Edwards won. He retired in 1995 and was succeeded by conservative Republican Mike Foster, who was reelected in 1999. Kathleen Blanco, a conservative Democrat, became the first woman to be elected governor in 2003. In 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated parts of the state, especially around New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast; as a result, it was estimated that some 240,000 people subsequently left Louisiana, largely from New Orleans and due to flooding, and the state and the city have only gradually regained those losses. Politically damaged by the post-Katrina turmoil she did not run in 2007, and Bobby Jindal, a Republican and the son of Indian immigrants, was elected governor, becoming the first nonwhite to win the post. He was reelected in 2011.

A blowout of a deep offshore oil well in 2010 led to the largest oil spill in U.S. history and polluted portions of the state's E Gulf Coast, in most cases affecting areas that had been hit hard by Katrina. Flooding was a significant problem in 2016, in parts of S Louisiana, especially in parishes around Baton Rouge, this time due to slow-moving rains. In 2020 several hurricanes struck the state, and Hurricane Laura caused severe damage in SW Louisiana, especially around Lake Charles and Cameron. In August 2021, Hurricane Ida--the second most powerful storm to hit the state since Katrina--devestated much of Grand Island and other parts of Southern Louisiana, although New Orleans was spared the amount of damage that occurred during Katrina thanks to the reenforcement of the levee system following that storm. Democrat John Bel Edwards (2015- ) is currently serving his second term as governor; he has reversed many of Jindal's more conservative policies, although he has supported new laws limiting a woman's rights to abortion.

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