The US Civil Rights Revolution
EDITORIAL, 24 May 2010
Greensboro, NC:[i] This is where it happened: the sit-in at the Woolworth lunch-counter 1 February 1960, unleashing a cascade of events leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, formally ending segregation based on color in the United States of America. The event got its International Civil Rights Museum 1 February 2010; 50 years (!) later. But then the Civil Rights Act came nearly a century after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed 1 January 1863, making the war anti-secession and anti-slavery. The South fought even more bitterly, England and France gave up the idea of recognizing the Confederacy as slavery was illegal in both, and white workers in the North feared competition from freed slaves so much that enlistment declined and a Conscription Act was passed March 1863. As late as 1850 the Compromise kept the Union united provided federal forces could be used to catch fugitive slaves!
Why, oh why, did it take so much time since the first slaves were shipped to Jamestown VA on a Dutch slaver in 1619, the year representative government (for males over 17) was initiated? The museum tells the story with passion, scholarship, and a strong message of the roles of committed individuals and of nonviolence.
Slavery was illegal but suppressing blacks by segregating, discriminating, insidious measures known as “Jim Crow”–keep the Negro in his place–was not illegal before 1964. The South (of the Mason-Dixon Line between free and slave states) clung to the rights of states to segregation and discrimination, and the liberties of individuals to believe in racial superiority and prejudice. Charles Darwin delivered a major support with the subtitle to his Origin of Species: “The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life”. Out of this came the White Citizen Councils for States Rights and Individual Liberties.
A research project 1958-60 on school desegregation in Charlottesville VA brought this author close to that abominable century of deliberate delay. Interviewing white segregationists brought up three major factors in their prejudice: they, the blacks, are angry because of slavery and will take revenge, stab us in the back; they are all communists against our society; they are ugly. Hidden in this was a recipe for individual black advance in white society: take history with a smile, be right wing Republican, be pretty-handsome. At least two out of these three may take you there. It is not pigment. Examples are obvious.
But neither the four million freed slaves, nor the former slave-owners, were prepared for slavery abolition. The Anglo riff-raff living “down the river”, down the Appalachians, down the coast, were brutal, violent people, many hardened by English-Scottish-Irish fights. Even a Coca Cola box was segregated, one side for whites (5 cents a bottle), the other for blacks (10 cents a bottle–1950s prices). City wards, restaurants, hotels, buses, trains, waiting rooms, water, beaches, anything: Colored here.
The follow-up to this massive stigmatization of fellow human beings was, of course, like for Jews in Germany, killing. Not by gas, but by lynching. Ku Klux Klan. Not hidden from the public eye but as publicized entertainment. Corpses could be carried into a movie house and the audience, with guns by the Second Amendment, was invited to fill it with bullets till it could hardly be carried out. Thousands of lynchings. Over 70 years.
Daily life was a nightmare for blacks traveling, like finding a toilet, a place to overnight. It must have taken some courage for a George Gershwin, commissioned to write an opera on an American theme, to choose the life of former slaves for (the not unproblematic) Porgy and Bess. But progress there was. How?
Imagine a matrix with all cities, mainly in the South, vertically and all forms of segregation horizontally. Could any concrete [place,issue] be a lever for a desegregation cascade?
Topeka, Kansas; the Monroe school, “Brown vs. Board of Education”, and the Supreme Court May 17 1954 decision to desegregate “with all deliberate speed”. A background study for that decision was Professor Otto Klineberg’s research on children whose parents moved from the Deep South to New York, measuring their IQ before and after some time in a desegregated and better context: they very quickly converged toward white levels.
But the speed was, indeed, “deliberate”. Slow. Rosa Parks accelerated the process with her courageous refusal to get up and give her seat in the black section of a bus to a white man in December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. And Martin Luther King Jr. saw the potential and–like an Osama bin Laden–verbalized it, in the March on Washington, August 1963: “I have a dream–, for the children of former slaves and of former slave-owners–“.
Greensboro, North Carolina; the Woolworth lunch counter. The strategy session of four black students at the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College 31 January 1960 (room 2128 in the dormitory) made history. D-day was 1 February; victory came June 1963. Then came a terrible backlash to desegregation spreading: the bombing of the 16th street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama 13 September: 4 young girls killed, 23 more badly wounded.
The nonviolence of courageous individuals, many white, many Jewish, made up the “We” who “overcame” that major social evil. Today the evil is reproduced in the disproportionate percentage of blacks in the US–world record–prison population, used as slave labor to make prisons profitable. There is work to be done. In the whole world, hopefully without treacherous compromises and a world civil war. Four courageous black students showed the way.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 May 2010.
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