Jewish World Review July 6, 2004 /17 Tamuz 5764
40 years of opportunities
If you blinked, you might have missed the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Everybody was so busily getting ready for the 4th of July weekend, I suppose, that not many had time to commemorate it.
Yet young folks should know how much this piece of legislation profoundly changed the daily life of this country.
One of my favorite examples is offered by a black man, a young infantry captain who was in leadership training at Ft. Benning, Ga., that summer.
He was taking a break with some of his white classmates when the subject of that year's presidential election campaign came up. The white officers supported conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona against President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had just signed the landmark Civil Rights Act.
The black officer was disappointed, to put it mildly, that Goldwater was one of the Senate's few Republicans to vote against the civil rights bill. It was a hot summer. Three civil rights workers had recently been murdered in Mississippi. The police chief in Birmingham, Ala., the hometown of the officer's wife, had set police dogs against people who were registering to vote. Four little girls had been blown up by a Ku Klux Klan bomb in their Birmingham church.
The young white officers assured the young black officer that they were not "prejudiced" against "colored people," but still they supported "property rights." They didn't like the idea of government telling people how to live their lives. If a man sets up a business, they said, he ought to be able to do what he wants with it.
The young black captain responded, "Let me tell you what `property rights' means. If you're a soldier and you're black, you'd better have a strong bladder, because you won't be stopping much between Washington, D.C., and Ft. Benning."
You also will have a hard time, he continued, finding a decent place to eat, go to a restroom or spend the night while driving to Georgia with your wife and child.
You can't reduce this issue to whether a white hotel owner should have to rent a room to a black, the black captain said, "You can't put property in the same league with human beings."
That black infantry officer was Colin Powell, the nation's first black secretary of state. He describes this episode in his 1995 autobiography, "My American Journey."
He doesn't recall what the white officers said in response, but he was happy to get his views and frustrations off his chest. Stories like these are called "lynching moments" by some African-Americans, episodes that remind you bluntly that, oh, yes, you are black.
A lot has changed since those days. "Colored people" is out, "people of color" is in. We now have a new black middle class, declining poverty rates and a new generation of black leaders in virtually every important sector of American life.
And women, whose equal rights were included ironically as a last-ditch tactic by southern segregationists to scuttle the bill, have made tremendous progress. Women outnumber men in college enrollment now, but an overall wage gap persists.
Lynching moments still come, but a lot less often, thanks to Johnson and, it is important to note, helpful Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois. As promised, he delivered enough Republican votes to LBJ to pass the bill over a solid wall of southern segregationist Democratic resistance.
"You're worthy of the `Land of Lincoln,'" the Big Texan gratefully told Dirksen. That was a very different day of bipartisanship than we see in Washington today.
Yet, for all of the opportunities that have opened up, a third of black children remain in poverty and too many drop out of school before they can take full advantage of the many opportunities that American society has opened up to them.
Where, as Martin Luther King Jr., once asked, do we go from here?
Sometimes I feel as though we African-Americans have been wandering through the wilderness for 40 years like the ancient children of Israel, searching for a new agenda that will take us to the "Promised Land" that King prophesied.
It took that long for the generations traumatized by slavery to die off, a black preacher once told me. "Only free minds can enter the Promised Land," he said.
Similarly many of us who are members of the "We Shall Overcome" generation need to be freed from viewing all black problems though a prism of race and civil rights. We need to find new ways to help the "hip hop" generation better itself, beginning with cracking open a book now and then before another 40 years pass
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