Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Pre-'54 Horrors Forgotten

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Pre-'54 Horrors Forgotten

Article excerpt

Forty years ago the Supreme Court started this country on an extraordinary undertaking: to undo 300 years of legally enforced racism. That was the effect of Brown vs. Board of Education, decided on May 17, 1954.

There is a certain skepticism now about the Brown decision. After all, it is said, race remains the American dilemma. Blacks as a group still suffer enormous disadvantages. What difference did it make?

But the skeptics have forgotten, or never knew, what it was like in the South back then. As Andrew Young remarked to Robin Toner of The New York Times recently: "People don't realize how bad things were. They can't imagine."

In 1954, and still 10 years later, black Americans were kept from voting in Mississippi, much of Alabama and Louisiana and parts of Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. A black who tried even to register in some communities risked his job, his home, his life.

Throughout the Deep South blacks were forbidden by local law to enter most restaurants or other places of public accommodation. They were barred from "white" hospitals and ambulances. A Birmingham ordinance forbade them to ride in "white" taxis: a rule that was considered an extreme example of petty apartheid in Johannesburg.

The Brown case was about public schools; the Supreme Court held that segregated education was "inherently unequal." But the message was far more profound. From now on the constitutional guarantee of "the equal protection of the laws" would mean just that.

"Among other things the Brown decision sent a message to blacks," Burke Marshall, assistant attorney general for civil rights from 1961 to 1964, said last month at a conference at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. "Students like John Lewis simply knew their time had come."

John Lewis was the founder and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which protested against racial oppression with amazing courage. Today he is a U.S. representative from Georgia.

"This country is a different country now," Lewis told the Kennedy Library conference. "It is a better country. We have witnessed a nonviolent revolution."

In 1964, Lewis noted, there were fewer than 100 black elected officials in all the Southern states. …

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