Magazine article Aging Today

Where Do Older Adults Fit in the Evolution of Civil Rights in America?

Magazine article Aging Today

Where Do Older Adults Fit in the Evolution of Civil Rights in America?

Article excerpt

To comprehend the status of older women, minorities and LGBTQ people in the United States, it is essential to understand the evolution of civil rights in this country. It began with indigenous people, and in 1776, the injec- s tion of slavery foreshadowed a new ethos. The Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that only "free white persons" could become citizens. The Civil War triggered the abolition of slavery and the genesis of civil rights.

But the Civil War did not erase racist practices. Women, Negros and LGBTQ people were exhorted to "stay in their place." In the early 1900s, there were mild efforts to address pro-inequality practices. Those of us born in the 1930s are indelibly affected by pre-civil rights inequities. We, as were our fore-parents, have been exposed to forced disenfranchisement practices that mirror acts of terrorism. Residual effects continue to resonate for diverse older adults.

Older Adults Find a Place in Civil Rights History

As a male of African descent, born in the 1930s, the civil rights journey has been frustrating yet exhilarating. Being subjected to anti-civil rights laws of the late and mid-1800s fostered an atmosphere of uncertainty and skepticism. Fear, hope and despair prevailed. Multiple inequities, consciously or not, tenaciously cling and complicate life. Civil rights laws have not proven to be a suitable proxy for equity.

Until recently, women could not hold certain jobs, receive equal pay or make critical decisions affecting their health. Sanctioned employment included being secretaries, nurses, teachers and homemakers. Older LGBTQ people generally remained closeted, were ostracized, ridiculed, lived secret lives and feared being exposed. Older minorities and LGBTQ people experienced myriad incomprehensible civil rights challenges.

Older LGBTQ people, minorities, faith groups and women have suffered ongoing inequities. Older adults' fingerprints are all over the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Some examples: Maggie Kuhn, 19051995, founder of the Gray Panthers, dedicated the later part of her life to fighting for the rights of older people; Senator Claude Pepper, 1900-1989, fought for elder rights until his death at age 89; Dorothy Height, 1912-2010, president of the National Council of Negro Women, was a leader in civil and women's rights movements; and A. Philip Randolph, 18891979, organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the first black union. As older adults, they fought tirelessly for equity and the advancement of civil and human rights. Their endeavors are inherently connected with individuals of past and future generations.

Non-Black Civil Rights History

Until the mid-1960s, minorities were subjected to injustices that civil rights laws are designed to expunge. Jim Crow Laws (1870-1965) were racial segregation laws that followed Black Codes (1800-1866) condoning lynching, which continued into the 1950s.

Though non-black civil rights histories are less luminous, others have fought relentlessly to defeat anti-civil rights protagonists, as follows:

American Indians. By 1870, most Indians were restricted to reservations. The years 1871 to 1934 were known as the Assimilation and Allotment Era. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 sought to establish rights for reservation Indians. The 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act limited tribal sovereignty.

Asian Americans. Asian American elders' civil rights experiences vary. Asians were banned from racial intermarriage and had limitations placed on property ownership. …

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