Today we celebrate a history of shifting American attitudes toward race. Although Americans have always had a preoccupation with race, it is only in the recent past, and then only at the insistence of the victims of racism, that the nation began to take any kind of aggressive steps to inhibit and diminish the white supremacist impulse in the American character.
It was just forty years ago that the Swedish socialist Gunnar Myrdal released his classic study, An American Dilemma, issuing a challenge to Americans to try, if we could, to match our practices with our promises. It was only thirty-seven years ago that the U. S. Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in the public schools and by implication in all of public life was against the law. "Not until the Supreme Court acted in 1954, did the nation acknowledge it had been blaming the black man for what it had done to him. His sentence to second-class citizenship had been commuted. The quest for meaningful equality, equality in fact as well as in law, had begun."( 1)
If the depression in 1929 had convinced Americans they were obligated to protect the well-being of their fellow citizens, the Supreme Court's decisions in 1954 and 1955 began to convince reluctant Americans that they would have to share their bounty, their knowledge and their world. "For the American Negro," as Kluger notes, "no more would he be a grinning supplicant for the benefactions and discard of the master class. No more would he be a party to his own degradation. He was both thrilled that the signal for the demise of his class status had come from on high; and angry it had taken so long and first extracted so steep a price in suffering."( 2)
A year after the Brown decision, a middle-aged department store seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat on a city bus so a white man could sit down. Five years after Montgomery, four black young men, college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, refused to give up their seats at a dime store lunch counter which had been reserved for whites. These small acts of passive-resistance to American apartheid and the cumulative acts of tens of thousands more helped create a people's movement in the American South which eliminated legal segregation in little more than a decade.
There are those Americans today who will declare that yesterday's movement went too far. These are people who have either forgotten or never knew what yesterday was really like. The words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King may help to generate a sense of that place not quite a generation ago. To white clergymen in Birmingham who could not understand why this Christian minister was an inmate in their jail, he wrote: