Steve Haycox: These anniversaries should inspire us

commentBy STEVE HAYCOXFebruary 20, 2014 

A news item of particular import passed mostly unnoticed early this week: A statue of James Meredith on the University of Mississippi campus was found with a noose around its neck and a Confederate flag draped around its shoulders.

Meredith is the courageous African-American who forced the Kennedy administration to enforce his civil rights when he sought admission to the University of Mississippi in 1962. Mississippi's Gov. Ross Barnett tried to prevent Meredith's enrollment but backed down under pressure from Kennedy. Meredith's action generated a riot at the university, to which the federal government responded with 500 U.S. marshals, a contingent of U.S. Army troops and nationalization of the Mississippi National Guard. Two people were killed and more than 200 injured. Rioters set fire to the commanding general's staff car when he arrived on the scene; he and his aides escaped by crawling 200 yards while being fired on by rioters.

Meredith's principal adviser during his preparation was civil rights worker Medgar Evers, later assassinated by a member of a White Citizens' Council.

In this day of political division, and given the trouble some significant number of Americans still have with the concept of racial equality, it's useful to recall some of the victories. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision that found separate but equal public education facilities for different races to be unconstitutional, which some mark as the beginning of the modern civil rights revolution in this country. Certainly Brown provided the legal foundation on which subsequent judicial, executive and legislative actions to end racial discrimination in the U.S. would rest.

Among the extraordinary aspects of Brown in a country that had great difficulty doing anything about the gnawing persistence of racial segregation, the court had to find grounds for overturning its own diametrically contradictory precedent on racial segregation. Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 had found separate but equal educational facilities to be consistent with the U.S. Constitution, a document that has also protected other nefarious insults to human dignity. In the final analysis, the 1954 court found that separate facilities are not equal, neither in practice nor in theory.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first successful, comprehensive civil rights legislation since the Civil War. It banned discrimination in education, workplaces and public accommodations, a prohibition subsequently strengthened by further legislation.

It took a lot of parliamentary machination to get the 1964 act passed. It only came to the floor of the House when the speaker gathered enough votes for a discharge petition to force it out of the committee where the chairman was determined to hold it indefinitely. In the Senate, southern Democrats filibustered the bill for 57 days before Hubert Humphrey was able to assemble enough votes to stop them. After it passed, President Johnson predicted, accurately, that the act would cause Democrats to lose a majority of southern voters to the Republican Party.

Can morality be legislated? University of Alaska Fairbanks historian Terrence Cole reconstructed some years ago the story of Alberta Schenck and the 1945 Alaska Anti-discrimination Act. Schenck was the teenager in Nome who protested the segregated theater there, whose telegram to Territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening helped persuade him to urge passage of the bill. Cole wrote that the act did not end segregation in Alaska but it was nonetheless an important beginning, for it eliminated any legal right to advertise one's race prejudice.

Anniversaries are not just curiosities. Their importance is to help us remember where we have been as a culture, to aid in charting a course into the future, always challenging to conjure. And victories help to inspire when the odds seem overwhelming of gathering enough support to achieve meaningful reform. It helps to know that others faced seemingly impossible probabilities, yet persevered and changed the culture. When Hubert Humphrey told the 1948 Democratic National Convention it was time his party should walk out of the shadow of states' rights and into the sunshine of civil rights, segregationist Democrats stormed from the hall and ran their own candidate. But 16 years later, in 1964, Humphrey's party led the country on the noble path toward racial integration.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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