Fifty years ago my 8th birthday was approaching. My family had moved a couple years earlier from public housing in Harlem to suburban New Jersey. Our home in New Jersey was purchased at a cheap price in large part because the white, high school educated shoe salesman who built it a couple years earlier was upset that a research chemist with a PhD in engineering was moving in next door–and was black.
Race was very much on everyone’s minds back then; certainly it was a frequent topic of conversation in my home. My parents were appalled at what was happening, not only in the South, where it was more overt, but everywhere–including redlining and other actions to limit fair opportunity for all. My father was born in a migrant labor camp outside of Yakima, and identified strongly with the importance of opportunity. His personal story was the stuff of an apocryphal American Dream, born into a family where graduating high school was rare he ended up getting a fellowship to get his doctorate in Psychology from Columbia University, then a career mostly at Educational Testing Service. He felt his story should be available to anyone.
Watching the television reports on the Selma bridge anniversary brought back memories of that time, including watching Walter Cronkite voicing over the horrible pictures of marchers being beaten, and of Bill Plante’s on-the-ground reporting. Fifty years later, many things have changed for the better. My current home of Bellingham, Washington–like many cities–is much more diverse, and a more welcoming community than it was back then. The Voting Rights Act provided access to the polls for people systematically discouraged from voting, or even banned via beatings and intimidation from voting at all. Banking laws have outlawed redlining; employment laws similarly outlaw workplace discrimination. It is no longer remarkable to see interracial couples, and interracial friendships are far more common than they were fifty years ago.
But societies are slower to change. Even now, the Voting Rights Act has been gutted by court action; a bill to correct this languishes in the House of Representatives despite dozens of co-sponsors and lip-service support from both parties. Minorities, especially young black men, are viewed too often through a lens of fear. The combination of that fear coupled with the proliferation of guns (more guns in this country than people–have we got enough yet?) has led to a wave of shootings by police of young, black men. Almost daily it seems another black man has died as a result of being shot by the police. We have a lot of work left to do, as the President noted.
One of the things that makes this country exceptional is the ability of everyday people to get involved in effecting change. A group of folks with incredible courage put their lives on the line fifty years ago putting that principle into practice, and today many are standing up to declare that the status quo is not acceptable, that Black lives matter. I hope all of us can look back and learn, and looking forward, work to bring about positive change where change is needed.