Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Race Matters

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Race Matters

Article excerpt

Americans like to think of their history as a success story. And so, by most measures, and for most people most of the time, it has been. Except, of course, for the matter of race. That issue has cursed the nation from the beginning, and we have never gotten it right, or even close to right. It is our abiding political and moral failure, and we seem, at this late date, no nearer to a solution than we have ever been. We don't know how properly to approach our racial problem or even how properly to talk about it. It divides us black and white, liberal and conservative.

Given our confusions - and given the tendency of those confusions to wind up in bitter disagreements - we have a natural inclination to avoid the subject altogether. When there seems nothing useful to say, silence is an appealing option. But of course avoidance gets us nowhere, and the occasion of Black History Month seems an appropriate time to revisit our great national conundrum, looking not for grand revelation but for, perhaps, a measure of understanding.

We might begin with that brief, shining moment in the early 1960s when it looked like things might be different, when it seemed that America might finally have found the beginnings of a plausible path to racial reconciliation. That moment began with the March on Washington for civil rights on August 28, 1963, one of the proudest moral occasions of American history. Those of us who were there will never forget it.

The march was only the first of its kind in that incendiary decade, but unlike so many of the marches on so many issues that were to follow, there was no mood of bitterness, defiance, or alienation; all was affirmation and celebration. We marched for what was selfevidently good and necessary, and we believed that a society basically decent and just would respond accordingly. Time has obscured most of the memories of the occasion, but I vividly recall - and not just because history has enshrined it - Martin Luther King's fabled "I Have a Dream" speech. There were lots of speeches that day and lots of entertainment (my only other vivid memory is Peter, Paul, and Mary belting out "If I Had a Hammer"), and attention began to flag. But when King's turn finally came, he commanded notice from the start, and he held us in the rhythms of his extraordinary imagery and intensity. I remember that halfway through the speech an elderly black man a few rows ahead of me turned and remarked to no one in particular, "Man, don't he talk fine."

He did, and there is evidence that in the aftermath of the march the majority of northern whites had developed at least a degree of sympathy toward the idea of civil rights for blacks. Few of them could quarrel with the moral logic of King's speech, and for many the guilt he rightly inspired about the nation's racial history led them to agree with the conservative Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen that civil rights was "an idea whose time [had] come." It is difficult otherwise to explain the wide margins by which the historic civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965 passed in the face of adamant southern opposition. Public opinion polls of the time further bear out that interpretation: Congress was acting in accordance with, not contrary to, majority views.

And yet within a few years that hopeful moment of reconciliation had gone up, often literally, in smoke and ashes. What went wrong? The standard answer is that when King and other civil rights leaders brought their crusade north after 1965 they ran into stubborn opposition from whites who had found it easy to support reform in distant Dixie and cheer demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, but who dug in their heels when the marches hit Chicago and New York and their own unjust racial arrangements came into question.

There's no little amount of truth in that, of course, but an account of what happened to civil rights in the sixties and beyond that focuses only on habits among whites of prejudice, insufficient moral concern, and social lethargy is misleading and incomplete. …

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