In 1927, A.P. Tureaud became a board member of the New Orleans branch of the N.A.A.C.P., the first branch in the Deep South. Publicly affiliating with the N.A.A.C.P. could be quite dangerous at that time, but Tureaud's conviction that the law was the most effective way to address the black community's grievances helped him persevere against the threats.
Though he consistently maintained respect for the legal community and judicial branch, Tureaud often faced judges who were sympathetic to his clients (often falsely arrested or subject to police brutality), but who would tell him there was nothing they could do, because white people voted the judges into office. Sometimes a judge would publicly announce a conviction but privately record a dismissal. He was often confronted by members of the black community with pressing issues of discrimination, which he would pass along to the national office of the N.A.A.C.P. Unfortunately, the local branch consistently chose white lawyers to handle their civil rights cases. Tureaud pressed this issue for years throughout the 1930s. He finally succeeded in becoming the official branch legal advisor in 1939.
In 1941, Tureaud, along with Thurgood Marshall of the national N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, successfully challenged the salary disparity between black and white New Orleans teachers. Tureaud filed sixteen suits over seven years in the 1940s, challenging the salary disparities throughout the state. In 1948, as a result of his litigation, the Louisiana state legislature adopted a minimum salary schedule for all teachers, regardless of race.
Voting rights was another important and difficult fight. It was, by design, extremely difficult for black citizens to register to vote. They were asked ridiculous questions as pre-requisites, and often just outright denied. Voter registration was not only important for civic participation but was also often a requirement for employment. Tureaud, working again with Thurgood Marshall, successfully challenged these voting restrictions in 1946. After losing in the federal district court, the Louisiana case and a similar Alabama case were appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, based in New Orleans. The unanimous bench affirmed the plaintiffs right to sue for voting discrimination in federal court. In the 1940s, only about 400 black New Orleanians were registered to vote. By 1952, there were thousands.
In 1946, as part of a nationwide N.A.A.C.P. strategy, Tureaud filed a lawsuit challenging Louisiana State University Law School's policy of whites-only admission. There were no law schools in Louisiana that admitted black students at the time, and so the legal team charged that the "separate but equal" requirement (established in the notorious Plessy case) was violated when there was no alternative option. The lawsuit was dismissed because the judge believed it should have been filed against Southern University, which had been established in 1881 specifically for the black community, and had no law school. However, no lawsuit was filed against Southern. Instead, the Louisiana Legislature allocated funding for a law division, which was opened at Southern University in 1947.
In 1948, after a proposed millage that would have helped improve schools for black children failed, Tureaud filed suit against the Orleans school board. Though there was less resistance to improving schools for black children in the 1950s, it was because school boards were trying to avoid lawsuits that would declare segregation wholly unconstitutional. In 1950, several N.A.A.C.P. lawyers decided it was time to challenge the constitutionality of racially segregated schools head-on and ask the court to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1952, suit was filed. Several other similar suits were filed across the United States, and in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the United States Supreme Court found that the doctrine of "separate but equal" had no place in education. The case Tureaud filed in New Orleans, however, still took several more years after Brown to settle. Though the school board was ordered to desegregate "with all deliberate speed" in 1956, the school board continued to delay. After multiple battles in court and with the state legislature and governor, in 1960 desegregation in New Orleans schools finally went into effect. But the process was laborious, and the children and their parents were subject daily to threats and to violence.
In 1950, Tureaud was elected president of the local New Orleans chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. During his tenure as president from 1950-1953, he filed four lawsuits challenging segregation policies at LSU, at the law, medical, graduate, and undergraduate schools. Recent United States Supreme Court cases on segregation helped bolster his arguments, which required schools to be "substantially equal." In 1950, the case against the law school was won and the plaintiff enrolled in the law school as its first black student. The case against the medical school was won in 1951 and against the graduate school in 1952. The case against the undergraduate school was heard in 1953. Tureaud's own son, A.P. Tureaud Jr., was the plaintiff. LSU tried to argue that because there were several colleges established specifically for black students there was no discrimination and thus no violation of the law. The LSU attorneys even argued that Tureaud Jr. was ungrateful for the support the state provided. LSU failed to persuade the judge and again the plaintiffs prevailed. Tureaud also filed suit against the other state-supported colleges and universities. Two months after the Brown decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit again ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a case against Southwestern Louisiana Institute, in which the court enjoined the institute from preventing admission to all black Louisianians. The other colleges and universities also settled.
By the 1960s, as progress in civil rights for black Americans continued to stall, civil disobedience became more frequent. Though initially hesitant to represent the students engaging in such protests, he agreed, in a case that would eventually become the United States Supreme Court's first ruling on lunch counter sit-in protests. In 1961, sixteen students' convictions were overturned in a major civil rights achievement.
As his profile grew in fame, so too did the dangers to Tureaud and his family. He often received harassing phone calls and even bomb threats at his home and office. One method the family developed to counter such harassment, which occurred at all hours of the day and night, was to blow a whistle loudly into the phone.
Top left image: From the Time-Picayune, November 13, 1960, filing in New Orleans school desegregation suit. Right image: Dutch Morial (front row, middle), A.P. Tureaud (front row, second from right), and several other local N.A.A.C.P. leaders. (Credit: Louisiana N.A.A.C.P.) Bottom left image: From LSU Daily Reveille, 1953, as A.P. Tureaud Jr. enrolls at LSU.