"The basic thing I want you to see is that while this period (the protest phase of the civil rights movement) represented a frontal attack on the doctrine and practice of white supremacy, it did not defeat the monster of racism....The roots of racism are very deep in this country." (27) Martin Luther King made that statement in 1968. Perhaps he wondered how long it would be before African-Americans would truly be able to access the civil rights gained through his nonviolent methods of the 1960's.
The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s were great breakthroughs. Not only did they afford African-Americans legal rights that every American should have, they provided for enforcement of some of the laws by the Federal government. By the early 1970s, Federal agencies had followed suit, instituting directives, policies, and training on race relations and equal opportunity.
The national theme for the Millennium Black History Month celebration: Heritage and Horizons: The African-American Legacy and the Challenges of the 21st Century" captures the essence of the struggle for civil rights during the past 40 years. This document is intended to provide an overview of the civil rights movement from its inception to the present day.
Today, some issues continue to be in the forefront of the civil rights struggle while others are new. Here are some selected current issues.
One area where some believe educational opportunities are not equal is in gifted programs. African-Americans appear to be over represented in special education programs, but very few participate in gifted programs. Donna Y. Ford of the University of Virginia believes this is because of the tools used to identify children as gifted and stressors felt by African-American children. The tool used by the vast majority of states (88.5%) to identify gifted students is an IQ or achievement test, which doesn't take into account different learning styles, test anxiety, environment, etc. Ford advocates a variety of different means of identifying gifted students, from teacher involvement to grades. (12:52-60) The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is currently working with the State of Georgia to change the way the state identifies gifted students. Currently, selection is based only on IQ scores. (34:4)
The legislative barriers broken during the civil rights movement have not yet translated into equal accomplishments in education. Since 1960, the number of African-Americans who completed four or more years of high school has more than tripled (from 20% to 73%) yet still lags behind White students (82%). Although this gap is not wide in high school, White Americans complete four or more years of college at twice the rate of African-Americans (22.9% of White Americans and 12.9% of African-Americans). (30:157)
August 6, 1995, was the 30th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and it caused many to reflect. Just a year earlier, there had been a landmark decision concerning redistricting. In Miller v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled five to four to uphold a district court's decision that redistricting resulting in three Black-majority districts was unlawful because race was the determining factor in the make-up of the districts. (28:1A) Justice Anthony Kennedy, citing a precedent case in his statement of majority opinion, wrote:
The idea is a simple one: "At the heart of the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection lies the simple command that the Government must treat citizens as individuals, not simply components of a racial, religious, sexual or national class."...When the state assigns voters on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that voters of a particular race, because of their race "think alike..."
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg stated that:
"Legislative districting is a highly political business. This court has generally respected the competence of state legislatures to attend to the task. When race is an issue, however, we have recognized the need for judicial intervention to prevent dilution of minority voting strength." (28:1A)
Housing discrimination stills exists; the question is how widespread it is. A recent special report, "True Colors," by the ABC news show Prime Time with Diane Sawyer, followed two men, one White and one Black, through their test transition to moving to a new city. In their search for housing, hidden cameras made the results very obvious. For example, while an apartment was not available for the African-American, it was available for the other man an hour later. This kind of discrimination was evident over the course of their housing search. John Yinger, a professor of economics and public administration and Associate Director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at the Center for Policy Research at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, has written a book about the costs of housing discrimination. He cites cases involving minorities with equivalent or higher incomes than Whites. In these cases, minorities were shown only the homes for which they expressed interest. The Whites, in addition to being shown the homes for which they expressed interest, were also shown similar homes that were available. This type of discrimination may make it difficult for an African-American to find a home when moving to a new area and greatly affects the quality and desirability of their housing. (35:27-28)
Richard Hatcher, former Mayor of Gary, Indiana, and one of the first two Black mayors of a major American city (23:9), sees the struggle of the future as "silver rights" and "economic empowerment" for African-Americans. (19:185)
Others, such as Georgia State Representative Tyrone Brooks, echo his ideas:
"We've won the battle for the right to vote, we've won the battle against segregation, we've won the battle to go to schools of our choice. We have not won the battle in terms of money, the economic challenge." (10:5A)
In 1994, approximately a third of all Black families were below the poverty level, while less than one-tenth of all White families were below the poverty level. (30:48)
If the civil rights movement has achieved its goals, why do so few African-Americans feel they do not have the same opportunities as Whites? An Associated Press poll conducted in 1998 showed that six out of ten White persons believed African-Americans have an equal opportunity. Seven of ten African-Americans polled did not agree. In the same poll, one of every three people thought the United States has not done enough since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. (9:15A)
An article about the costs of integration in the Oakland Post states that when African-Americans moved into White neighborhoods, many African-American businesses could not follow and had to close. Also, when African-Americans all lived in the same neighborhoods, young African-Americans had a variety of role models day after day. Today, some poor, young African-Americans don't see other African-Americans who have attended college. According to the article, this has brought about a "generation of alienated and hopeless youth." The last point relates to integration in schools. According to the article, African-American children have lost much of the African-American history previously taught when the class was only comprised of African-Americans. (21:4)
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, originally established by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, still exists and has expanded its scope. Founded to act as a "fact finding" body, its new mandate includes preparing public service announcements and advertisements to discourage discrimination. (32:1) It now includes eight commissioners picked by Congress and the President. (18:111)
In a 1996 report approved by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the federal government was found lacking in its enforcement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The report cites the Justice Department for "extensive deficiencies" in enforcement of the law in order to "ensure nondiscrimination in all federally funded programs and activities." (31:1)
A well known tragic event in the Civil Rights movement was the killing of civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964. The three men had come to Longdale, Mississippi, to look into the firebombing of a Black church where voter registration had taken place. At a ceremony commemorating the event 25 years later, Rita Schwerner-Bender said, "The only appropriate memorial to the men and women who have participated in this struggle is its continuation." At that same ceremony, Mississippi Secretary of State Dick Molpus reflected,
We acknowledge that dark corner of our past...My heart is full because I know that if James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were to return today, they would see a Philadelphia and a Mississippi that--while far from perfect--are closer to being the kind of place the God who put us here wants them to be. And they would find--perhaps to their surprise--that our trials and difficulties have given Mississippi a special understanding of the need for redemption and reconciliation and have empowered us to serve as a beacon for the nation. (7:57)
Elizabeth Cobbs is a relative of Robert Chambliss. Chambliss, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was the only person convicted in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church that killed four girls. She remembers sewing the white robes he sometimes wore. But in 1965, she became an informant and risked her life and the lives of her family by cooperating with the FBI. At the time the case wasn't prosecuted, and two other informants were murdered. In 1977, the case was pursued by the Alabama Attorney General's Office and Chambliss was convicted. In Cobbs' book about the case, she says she has learned from her experiences that a person must hold others accountable for their actions and demand honesty from government officials. She states, "For this is the essence of freedom, the very definition of democracy, and our only hope against oppression." (4:15)
Most people believe that Rosa Parks did not intend to start the Civil Rights movement by refusing to give her seat to a White person, she just did not want to get up that day. Not true, says Northwestern University sociologist Charles Payne. He wrote a book about the Civil Rights movement called the Light of Freedom. "Rosa Parks," he says, "was a civil rights activist who so frequently defied jim crow [sic] laws that some Montgomery bus drivers drove right past her rather than allow her to board their buses." (3:20)
Today, when people young and old reflect on the movement, often their views differ, but they retain the same theme. In a recent survey by the Michigan Chronicle, people were asked "What do you see as the greatest contribution of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 60s?" Some responses:
The civil rights movement helped us understand that while racism will probably never go away, we still have the right, no matter what color we are, to be whatever we want to be in life - even President of the United States.-- Ronald Richardson, 21
I just shake my head in shame sometimes when I see that lack of appreciation and respect that young people have for the folks who paved the way for them. But then again, I can kinda understand because they really can't understand because they were not a part of it. So they can't really appreciate the fight. But I was part of it, and I'd do it all over again because civil rights are something that everybody is entitled to.-- David McLoughlin, 82
Although I was not born during that time, I realize that it was then that we first began to learn how to cooperate and come up with peaceful and effective solutions to our problems. But one of the things that bothers me most about our generation is that we seem to be abusing those privileges that participants in the civil rights movement fought so hard for.-- Aaron Holley, 22 (5:1-A)
Can we expect to ever live in a perfect world? Racism may never be fully eliminated from our society. But it would never have been challenged if those who took part in the Civil Rights movement did not have the courage and desire to make all of our lives better.