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. …