During February, this country focuses its attention on black history, and the civil rights movement takes center stage as a significant event in the lives of African-Americans. Indeed, this is true, but it causes me some concern that even some African-Americans believe that the civil rights movement happened in the `60s and `70s. Anyone who is interested in history realizes that life-changing events seldom just explode on the scene. They are often preceded by a long period in which any number of events have prepared the way.
I believe the civil rights movement has its roots in the work of educated freedmen, the abolitionists, workers on the underground railroad and the American Missionary Association. The debate was heightened by scholars such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. I believe the work was continued through the work of a host of clergy, teachers, civic leaders and just plain citizens who exhorted, explained and challenged those who would listen.
The effort deepened with the work of such organizations as the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Significant leadership roles were taken by Adam Clayton Powell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson, Mary McCloud Bethune, the Rev. Vernon Johns, Walter White and too many others to list here. These were the roots that made the civil rights movement possible. As we celebrate, they must not be forgotten. In those difficult days, anti-lynch laws and school desegregation were hard fought battles for freedom.
The civil rights movement burst on the scene and left America changed in ways difficult for the older generation to comprehend. They shook their heads and said, "I never thought I'd live to see the day." Since the passage of voting rights laws, civil rights laws and amendments to the Constitution, the mood of the American people has waxed and waned. There have been moments of elation and moments of despair. Some say the promises have not been kept and hope is dead. Some say the battle has just begun, change takes time. And so it goes: Optimism, disappointment, anger, hostility and hope mingle in this cauldron of social change. These are some of the voices I have heard:
"The hard part is done. Now all will be well. We don't have to worry any more. The law supports our claims to equality."
"The doors have been opened. We must prepare to enter them."
"The world will never be safe for us again. If I had been treated the way they were treated, I'd be out for revenge."
"They'll never be equal no matter what the laws say. They're inferior, and the Bible says it's so. Equality for them will always be a pretense."
"When they get something that looks like equality, they'll want social equality too. …