I was born February 23, 1961, which meant the New Frontier of John F. Kennedy was just a month old and the civil rights movement was still pretty much in its infancy. My first awareness of the radical changes happening was with the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968.
Even then, the only reason it came to my attention was due to a family vacation in Washington D.C. in May of that year. I have memories of hearing snatches of long distance conversations between my father and the friend we were supposed to be visiting debating the wisdom of the trip.
As with most of my childhood, I retain only brief glimpses of what happened during that trip: The Lincoln Memorial, The Smithsonian Institution, plumes of smoke over the downtown core where fires from riots weeks old still smouldered, seeing more black people on the streets than I had ever seen before, and being told not to bother locking car doors because “it would only make them angry.”
I had been told that President Lincoln had abolished slavery, and looking around at what I considered the vast numbers of black people, I had asked my mother if he had gotten elected because all the black people had voted for him. She said no, not bothering to explain in those days most blacks wouldn’t have been able to vote anyway, and said that black people were a minority of the population. Even if they all had voted for Mr. Lincoln, she said, it wouldn’t have been enough on its own to elect him.
A seven-year-old child sees what’s in front of him and doesn’t think of anything else. Coming from Toronto of the 1960s, with a population of less than 500,000, and very few visible minorities, the visual evidence of Washington D.C. was of a country populated predominantly by black people. I don’t know what the actual demographics of Washington are, or were back then, but I’m sure there wasn’t the black majority I imagined.
Friends of my mother’s had been part of a contingent of young Canadians who had gone down to take part in the Freedom Rides of the early sixties. So she had some first hand accounts to draw upon to help me understand the struggle that had been taking place in the country next to us while I had been learning how to walk.
I don’t think it’s stretching an analogy too much to say at the same time I was beginning to grow up, so was the United States. Neither of us seemed to be in any hurry to rush matters. I didn’t learn to walk until I was almost two (it probably won’t come as any surprise that I was talking by one) and it took until 1964 for the Untied States to pass the Civil Rights Act.
But standing up and putting one foot in front of the other is only the first step in the long process of covering any distance. The riots and the protest marches were the equivalent of an infant’s instinctual need for gratification. While the infant wants food and nurturing, people want freedom and to be treated the same as everyone else.
You know “deep in your heart”, as the song goes, that it’s not right that someone gets preferential treatment over you because of their skin colour. You see that happening and you act out against the injustice inherent in the activity. You don’t have to think about whether it’s fair that one person can go to a school while another can’t because of the colour of their skin.
How many of the “accomplishments” of the civil rights movement in the sixties weren’t anything more than getting black people to be treated like human beings instead of a lesser species? The right to vote, the right to sit and eat where they wanted, and a lot of stuff that privileged people like that white boy from Toronto took for granted.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down, the redress had only started. From sheer momentum alone the movement continued to advance his causes, but could not go any further. His death left a vacuum that to this day has not been filled in any credible manner. How much had really changed other than those basic rights being ceded? What has been accomplished by those who have come after him?
Sure, black people could now go to school and eat anywhere they wanted; but how were they going to afford to pay the restaurant bill or overcome two hundred years of enforced ignorance to pass the entrance exam? It was like presenting a starving man with a full course banquet and saying help yourself, but sewing his lips shut so he can’t eat.
Affirmative action legislation is a helpful tool, but it only works for those who have already managed to cross over the gulf of historical inequity. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed for the first time to all of us how wide that gap still remains. I would think (at least hope so anyway) that it must have shocked those who consider themselves leaders of the African American community even more so than guilt-stricken white liberals.
It’s been easy to become complacent with the current status quo, and forget that millions of people have been left behind. For every general how many single mothers are there? For every doctor and lawyer, how many more janitors are there? For every university graduate how many high school dropouts?
True there are white people in the same boat, but I’m willing to bet the ratio is far less significant than that among blacks. The prevailing image that came out of New Orleans was that the face of inner city poverty in America is still black, or at least a shade of skin darker than white.
Social change came to a screeching halt in 1968. With the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the hijacking of the Democratic nomination for president from Eugene McCarthy into the hands of Hubert Humphrey, and the ultimate election of Richard Nixon as president.
The Great Society programming that had been implemented by Lyndon Johnson in his presidency got washed away in the flood of Viet Nam and military spending under Nixon. (To be fair, the trend had started under Johnson, and caused his near defeat by McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary and his withdrawal from the race for president.)
Although Jimmy Carter in his one term as President tried to bring the focus of the government back onto domestic issues like housing and education, his troubled presidency was either beset by scandal or having to deal with international troubles like the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the political upheaval in Iran that resulted in the storming of the American embassy and the infamous hostage crisis.
Since the Reagan presidency, social spending and government-dictated social changes (never popular in the United States to begin with) have fallen into serious disfavour. Bill Clinton was far too obsessed with Bill Clinton to fulfill his promise, and his final term was hampered by partisan attempts to impeach him because he got caught with his fly open.
With the support of a Republican House and Senate, George W. Bush has continued the pattern of increased military spending and tax cuts at the expense of any social programs begun under Reagan. Whoever succeeds Mr. Bush will be faced with a deficit of such mammoth proportions that the prospects of any great shift to spending on social programs happening in the near future should be considered nil.
What this all boils down to is that aside from a few small initiatives on the state level there have been no significant efforts made to improve the lot of the millions of poor Americans in the urban landscape. Since this has been the province of predominantly Black America since the migrations north during the twenties and thirties, it means that there have been no societal advancements for African Americans of any great significance since the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
In his speech the night prior to his death, where he eerily predicted what was to happen the next day, Mr. King claimed like Moses that he had been to the top of the mountain and seen the Promised Land:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. — Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3rd 1968
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a Promised Land was one of racial and economic equality, with equal opportunity for all and special privileges for none. His eyesight must have been damned good because almost forty years after that speech we’re no closer to getting there now than we were on that April night in Memphis Tennessee.