Take a glance at the anniversary calendar this year and it’s clear that in America, racial progress comes in fits and starts.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves to be free 150 years ago. Within a decade, a trio of amendments to the Constitution made them citizens. Over the next century, the Supreme Court and Jim Crow segregation in the South snatched their rights away, Medgar Evers was murdered trying to get them back, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s populist protests yielded laws that restored them before King, too, was killed.
Less than a year ago, the nation re-elected its first black president — a step widely considered the culmination of all this labor. President Barack Obama, the product of integration with an Ivy League education, was sent to the White House by a diverse American electorate, and presides over a country where people are free to live, work, play, go to school and marry regardless of race, things that by no means were guaranteed 50 years ago.
Yet in this week alone, a series of events illustrated just how fragile that progress really is.
The Supreme Court chipped away at that King-inspired voting rights law and others on job discrimination and affirmative action, then punted them to Congress to fix — a very divided Congress that has accomplished little since President Barack Obama first took office.
This and other events percolating in American culture — George Zimmerman’s trial in Florida for shooting to death black teenager Trayvon Martin, and celebrity chef Paula Deen’s career meltdown because of her past use of a racial slur — amounted to a gut punch for many, prompting questions about what exactly is going on.
“It’s so troubling for me, who has sort of bridged many, many years of social change, and to not see an end to this, I find it really nauseating,” said Suzy Post, 80, of Louisville, Ky., a white woman who has worked for civil rights causes since the 1950s and is now a member of the state’s Human Relations Commission.
Those sentiments were echoed last week by a visibly shaken collection of black and Hispanic members of Congress who bemoaned the fresh blows to the laws that helped to put many of them in office.
“The issue of race, slavery — it’s our original sin as a nation,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who as a student activist was severely, and repeatedly, beaten in the voting rights struggle of the 1960s. “It’s going to take years and maybe a generation before we end it. It’s a long, ongoing struggle. It’s the struggle of more than a lifetime.”
Where strides toward equality once were met by fire hoses or head-cracking blows from billy club-wielding police, now they can elicit racist commentary on Twitter, such as the hateful barrage over the national anthem being sung by Sebastien De La Cruz, a young Mexican-American, during the National Basketball Association finals. Or they generate oddly placed outrage, such as criticisms of a Cheerios commercial that depicted a white mother, a black father and their biracial child.
“What I believe is happening is that while the country’s demographic and age is changing rapidly, we as a nation have hit racial fatigue,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, co-founder of Voto Latino. “We no longer want to discuss race, and we like to believe that we’re above it. We are not.”
Briana Bacon, 20, of Philadelphia, put it more bluntly.
“I think they’re shutting down opportunities for minorities, and I think minorities are in a (expletive) place to begin with,” said Bacon, who is black and recently enlisted in the National Guard.
Civil rights leaders are unwilling to say that things today are as bad as they were in King’s heyday. But they acknowledge there are some uncanny parallels at play. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said that in the first four months of this year, restrictive voting bills were introduced in more than half the states.
“I don’t question whether Dr. King’s dream remains viable. What one questions is whether the nation has the commitment to freedom, justice and equality of opportunity for all on a broad basis. What we currently see in the country is a tension,” Morial said.
Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, recalled that King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, once observed that freedom is never really won in full; every generation must win it anew.
“The times we are living in remind us that Mrs. King was right,” Jealous said.
The United States has seen backlash against black Americans before. After the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which banned slavery, extended blacks equal protection as citizens and granted them the right to vote, respectively, blacks experienced fairly rapid gains in political and economic power. Southern states responded by passing laws that allowed them to circumvent the 15th Amendment.
Enter the Supreme Court in 1896 with its Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling, which declared segregation legal if accommodations for blacks are “separate but equal” to those of whites. Fifty-eight years went by before the high court would change its mind with Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
While the Supreme Court didn’t ban the use of race in university admissions last Monday, it returned the case to a lower court and set a higher standard for the University of Texas to meet before using race in deciding who may enroll. In two other decisions that same day, the court made it harder for employees to sue businesses for retaliation and discrimination.
A day later the high court stopped enforcement of a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that has kept states and local governments from implementing racially discriminatory election and voting laws and rules.
Between those rulings, civil rights activists stood together across town and announced plans to use the 50th anniversary of the August 1963 March on Washington to renew the push for racial equality.
The times, they said, require it.
“We have a black president and a black attorney general, but that is not achieving Dr. King’s dream,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist. “That may be a means to achieving it. Achievement is when we have one nation with equal protection under the law and equal opportunity.”
In some parts of the country, 1960s-style civil disobedience is already underway.
“Moral Monday” protests at North Carolina’s General Assembly have resulted in nearly 600 arrests since late April. The protests began over health care access but have grown to include demonstrations over unemployment benefit reductions and proposals to toughen voter identification requirements and other rules for voting.
“It seems as though every time that we start making strides the forces that seek to dismantle any equality or any justice efforts, they rise up and they do all that they can to undermine any progress that’s made,” said the Rev. Anthony T. Spearman, 62, a small-town pastor and vice president of the NAACP’s North Carolina state conference.