Leah Chase on Dr. King, civil rights at her restaurant - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Leah Chase on Dr. King, civil rights at her restaurant

New Orleans, La. -

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech is remembered as one of the greats of the 20th century. It was part of a progression of events that brought change to American society.

Much of the civil rights movement coalesced in the upstairs dining room of one of New Orleans' iconic Creole restaurants.

At 90 years old, Leah Chase still stirs the pot as she's done for decades. And she believes she's also helped stir the pot of social change, saying, "I feel in some way in this restaurant, people changed the course of America."

Before she hosted presidents and congressmen, Leah's Treme restaurant, called Dooky Chase, hosted dozens of meetings in an upstairs dining room as early as the late 1940's, during which civil rights strategists made big plans. 

"They would come here and eat after they went to jail, and I would say... go take a bath," Chase said.

The upstairs meetings often included Dr. King. "He wasn't a man to mingle like Jesse [Jackson], he wasn't like that," said Chase.

The restaurant was a meeting place for organizers of sit-ins at Woolworth and McRory's stores on Canal Street that helped desegregate lunch counters. "That was all planned here with Rudy Lombard and Oretha Castle Haley," said Chase.

And though Chase remembers Dr. King's fiery "I have a dream" speech, she also remembers the fighters and fights that came before that.

"I'm truly grateful to those people who took a risk to make a difference, and that's what life is all about," she said.

Many young doctors were considered instrumental to the local civil rights movement. "We got courage from Dr. King, he wasn't afraid to die," said Dr. Dwight McKenna, who frequently witnessed racism and prejudice first-hand growing up in New Orleans.

Former Mayor Moon Landrieu also recall  King's speech as being part of a progression.

"This speech clearly was one of the great speeches in American history,' said the former mayor.

But Landrieu, who would appoint many African Americans to city positions for the first time, said the civil rights fight was about more than just one speech. "It began with the first slave who came here and wanted to be free," said Landrieu.

As inspirational as Dr. King's speech was 50 years ago, Chase says her recollection isn't so much one of inspiration - it was more like fear and uncertainty.

"We were frightened... when you get that many people together, something will go wrong," she said.

"It recognized all our deficiencies and hopes, and the hopes we had for the future," said Dr. McKenna.

Many say there's still a long way to go. "I think we should all do what we can do to make a difference... pick up your pants and go to work. That's what the man died for," said Chase.

It's an ethic she has seen first hand and continues to live, each day.

Chase says she also knew Martin Luther King Sr.. Unlike Junior, she says, the father was far more gregarious and friendly. She said Junior seemed to carry the weight of the civil rights movement far more heavily.

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