Friday, January 23, 2009

Freedom Has Never Been Free

January 20 was a great day for this nation for good reason.

My life has spanned the civil rights movements of the 50s and 60s to the present day and I have been fortunate to witness this great time. I want to mark this Inauguration Day with some random thoughts on the subject of race and racism.

Preface:, the war for civil human rights goes on still. Here and abroad. Wherever there are people who are different, there are those who don't understand and fear the differences. Is this a human condition? I hope not. The Founding Fathers of this country declared that all men are created equal. I hope to live to see that day where this happens

The election of President Barack Obama symbolizes a major victory in the struggle of blacks in this nation. But he, like Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Muhammed Ali, and Harriet Tubman are only some of the most well known of those who have pleaded equality and risked their lives to prove their points.

There were many, many others. Some were heroes by choice, some martyrs by chance and most are unknown to all but their families.  The thing they all had in common was they knew they were in an important fight, and they wanted to prove themselves to be worthy.

I was brought up in a Northern low middle class family. Both my parents came from large farm families that weathered the depression. Neither my mother nor my father had ever met black people until they came to the urban environment of Northern Jersey. I would say that neither was a racist yet they had some racist attitudes. These attitudes prevailed throughout most of the white community where I lived and grew up in New Jersey. There was a general unwritten rule about separation of the races. And it took all the courage a person had to flaunt those rules.

Rosa Parks was 42.

I remember that my father didn't root for the Brooklyn Dodgers because there were too many black players on the team. Naturally, and only because, of the rebelliousness of my youth, I rooted for them. This brought some criticism and suggestions that I ought to get more serious about the sports team I cheer for. The "common" belief where I grew up was something was inferior about being anyone being different.

Equal educational opportunities eluded blacks in both the North and the South through these many years. In the North, it was just more sneaky I think.  As long as people knew their place, there was no trouble.  Not just blacks were excluded, by the way.  I recall that our local Catholic High School admitted a Jewish boy who was tormented by his classmates all four years.  

James Meredith, 29 at admission.

The word that begins with "n" was used commonly by almost everyone when I was growing up. And way into the 20th Century. You may recall that at the OJ Simpson trial, the police were accused of using it and thus prejudicing their work. It was only because of the Civil Rights movement and people like the Good Doctor King that the word became a serious no-no. I think it is unfortunate that we have seen the rappers bring it back to mainstream use again. Even if they mean it differently, it is a polarizing, segregating word.

As I grew up, I remember the scandals involving mixed-race couples.  It was in 1966 that a 14 year old white girl wrote a shocking song on interacial dating. Janis Ian was one of 5 white kids in an East Orange NJ school and she saw the situation from both sides. I clearly recall that it was especially reviled when a black man was with a white woman. Or even looked at a white woman.

Emmit Till, 14.

Until the 1950's there were no assurances from the Federal government that all citizens had the right to an equal education, fair employment, and non-discrimination in housing. There wasn't even a constitutional guarantee of the right to vote. These matters were left up to each individual state.

Thus, into the 1960's, 11 states still had poll taxes and literacy tests to specifically exclude black voters. There were 16 states that declared that interracial marriage was illegal with jail sentences of up to 5 years for the offense.

Mildred and Richard Perry Loving, both 25 when arrested.

During the middle 1950's, our nation seemed obsessed with the Communists in Russia. I recall that we would have frequent nuclear attack drills in elementary school. We would leave our little desks, march in the halls where we sat again the walls, our heads lowered between our knees. As if this would protect us somehow. If there was an attack, I think we were only in good position to kiss our asses goodbye. 

Astoundingly, the war that could have broken out was between US Army forces! In 1957 in Little Rock Arkansas,The governor of Arkansas mobilized the National Guard to prevent 9 black students from entering the white High School. In response, President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne division and "federalized" the National Guard, and the Guard complied with the President.

Ernest Green,16; Elizabeth Eckford, 16; Jefferson Thomas, 15; Terrence Roberts, 16; Carlotta Walls LaNier, 15; Minnijean Brown,16; Gloria Ray Karlmark, 15; Thelma Mothershed,17; and Melba Pattillo,16.

I did not know any of the Freedom Riders - those brave young people, both black and white, who sought to register blacks to vote during the summer of 64. I was a senior in high school that year and our star running back was black and the senior class president was black also. But we had a very small minority of blacks in rural Jersey at the time. I recall no demonstrations and little talk in the school itself of what was happening in the South.

James E. Chaney, 21; Andrew Goodman, 21; and Michael Schwerner, 24.

And there were fire bombings of churches. Yes, churches. I can't imagine that happening to the Roman Catholic church where our family belonged. My recollection of the sermons from that time centered around pleas for more money in the collection plates and a rather haughty attitude towards all non-catholics (we were the true faith). So, while we weren't anti-black, we were just anti-everyone else who wasn't Catholic. We prayed for the pagan babies who would never go to heaven because they were not baptized. We pledged to convert as many of the non-believers as possible to save their souls.  Even as children then, we were asked to proselytize.

And very sadly, I don't recall us praying for the victims of some of the horrible acts that were occuring so frequently then.

Denise McNair, 11; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Addie Mae Collins, 14.

Human rights issues are still on the table.  Gays, women, people of color, people of different religion in many nations, Chinese, Native Americans,Tibetans and many others.   The election of Obama is a major signal that things can change. 

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