Monday, January 26, 2009

Have We Overcome?

This month Smithsonian Magazine is running an article on The Freedom Riders Then and Now. It is a fascinating look at the people who ran to the front lines in America's struggle for racial equality.

The stories are compelling, and reading them makes me realize just how far we have come as a country. Take, for instance, this quote from one of the riders:

"It's the right thing to do, to oppose an oppressive state where wrongs are being done to people," said William Leons, a University of Toledo professor of anthropology whose father had been killed in an Austrian concentration camp and whose mother hid refugees during World War II. "I was aware very much of my parents' involvement in the Nazi resistance," he said of his 39-day incarceration as a rider. "[I was] doing what they would have done."

Here is the story of a man whose own family suffered horribly under Nazi oppression. Yet he used that experience as a spring board to fight against the oppression of others. The quote is interesting not only for the obvious bravery he displays, but also because Mr. Leon clearly saw some correlation between America's racial policies and those of fascist Germany.

There was a time not so long ago when Americans could credibly compare their government to Hitler's.

That point is further driven home by the existence of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. I had never heard of this commission until I saw it mentioned in the Smithsonian article.

Following the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education, aimed at desegregating schools, Mississippi and other southern states formed commissions aimed at shoring up segregation laws. The records of the commission are now available online, and provide chilling insights to the horrors of segregation and racism. The poster shown above - offering a reward for the body of Martin Luther King and others - is from the archive.

Having stumbled on this material, I'm once again struck by how unlikely it is that we have elected an African American as president. Given that these horrors are part of our recent history, it seems we have overcome a lot quickly.

Still, when I see the economic disparity between minorities and whites, combined with de facto segregation in my own city, I can't help but think we have a long way to go.

Is there a bus we can get on to fix these problems?

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