Civil Rights, Then and Now

The civil rights movement was in full swing. Governor George Wallace had stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama only to be finessed by President John F. Kennedy federalizing the Alabama National Guard. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial.

It was a hot muggy summer in the early 1960s, and a Midwestern university was holding a special graduate program. Students came from all over, including the South.

We looked upon the Southern students with suspicion and inquisitiveness. The particular group of four white males were always impeccably dressed.

They weren’t quite viewed as the enemy, but certainly their Southern drawl seemed to grate on our sensitivities about racial justice.

It took a while to get to know them. It started out like those middle-school dances where the boys congregate at one end of the dance floor and the girls at the other.

Maybe we felt more comfortable with them when the humidity chased after the temperature and the sportscoats and ties came off; the neatly pressed khakis and the white, short-sleeve dress shirts remained.

It took several lunches and outings to the campus pub before there was sufficient comfort to look across the table and raise the question that was on our minds… civil rights?

I don’t remember how the subject was broached; I do remember the response. It was from the tallest and most athletic of the crew. Maybe he felt the most comfortable because he physically dominated the scene.

I forget the specific question, but I remember the response. It went something like this: Politics is about power.  The South is tribal and corrupt.

What drives Southern Politics is racism, he continued. It is why the South is a one-party region. The greatest fear is that in those areas where blacks outnumber whites, they’ll take over. If the blacks take over, they’ll do the exact same things that we did. There is not going to be a harmonious power sharing with two races embracing the ideals of democracy. The blacks will replace us. I don’t think blacks are inferior, and I don’t hate them. I just want to keep my tribe in power.

That was a shot to the solar plexus of a bunch of twenty-somethings budding with the idealism, some of whom had worked in the civil rights movement at great personal risk.

It was a cynical position, and one that justified the denial of the rights of blacks because they might become as corrupt as their white oppressors. It had the logic of arresting people for crimes they might commit.

At the same time, throughout history few have ever yielded power to people they oppressed and subsequently continued to live under their rule. When colonial rulers yielded power, they packed up and returned home.

But one observation, cynical or not, was going to have more than a modicum of truth. Blacks would become just as power hungry as whites as their initial success aimed at decency and equality escalated their aspirations.

Permitting people to sit where they pleased on a bus or eat at a lunch counter was common decency.

Equal opportunity for all people served a social benefit of providing society with access to the largest pool of talent. Three black women mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, were critical to America’s winning the space race.

Successful political movements do not stop when their goals are achieved but transform themselves to seek higher aspirations. All political movements eventually move as far to the extremes as possible. Tocqueville expressed this in his image of the French Revolution as a cart running down a hill.

The civil rights movement evolved from non-violence, to directed resistance (a strategy of crossing the line to make law enforcement use violence), and finally to outright violence. Despite assurances to the contrary, equal opportunity became transformed into the ludicrous notion of equal result.

Where once integration and access to basic Constitutional freedoms were the goals, now a new wave of segregation is swelling up on America’s campuses with calls for separate dormitories, separate graduations, separate admissions standards, separate grading (sympathy grading) standards, and unconstitutional limitations on speech that the “previously oppressed” call offensive, racist, or simply do not like.

Some campuses hold a day when “people of color” and their allies bar white students from setting foot on campus. Administrators either condone the action, do little if anything to prevent it, or in some case punish whites who have the temerity to walk on campus on those days.

Conferences and seminars are held for “people of color” a phrase with a hostile political message that unites all people who are not white against white people, even though this union contains people who have almost nothing in common except racial antipathy.

So, was the good ole boy who sat across the table from us in the campus pub more than half a century ago correct in his cynical prognosis of the future? It is difficult to acknowledge that some of the idealism of one’s youth has been flushed down the political drain with the harsh realities of the present. Certainly, none of us imagined a scene where so-called “people of color” would prevent whites from coming on campus because of the color of their skin -- just as back then, we were horrified by the image of Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.

The civil rights movement was in full swing. Governor George Wallace had stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama only to be finessed by President John F. Kennedy federalizing the Alabama National Guard. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial.

It was a hot muggy summer in the early 1960s, and a Midwestern university was holding a special graduate program. Students came from all over, including the South.

We looked upon the Southern students with suspicion and inquisitiveness. The particular group of four white males were always impeccably dressed.

They weren’t quite viewed as the enemy, but certainly their Southern drawl seemed to grate on our sensitivities about racial justice.

It took a while to get to know them. It started out like those middle-school dances where the boys congregate at one end of the dance floor and the girls at the other.

Maybe we felt more comfortable with them when the humidity chased after the temperature and the sportscoats and ties came off; the neatly pressed khakis and the white, short-sleeve dress shirts remained.

It took several lunches and outings to the campus pub before there was sufficient comfort to look across the table and raise the question that was on our minds… civil rights?

I don’t remember how the subject was broached; I do remember the response. It was from the tallest and most athletic of the crew. Maybe he felt the most comfortable because he physically dominated the scene.

I forget the specific question, but I remember the response. It went something like this: Politics is about power.  The South is tribal and corrupt.

What drives Southern Politics is racism, he continued. It is why the South is a one-party region. The greatest fear is that in those areas where blacks outnumber whites, they’ll take over. If the blacks take over, they’ll do the exact same things that we did. There is not going to be a harmonious power sharing with two races embracing the ideals of democracy. The blacks will replace us. I don’t think blacks are inferior, and I don’t hate them. I just want to keep my tribe in power.

That was a shot to the solar plexus of a bunch of twenty-somethings budding with the idealism, some of whom had worked in the civil rights movement at great personal risk.

It was a cynical position, and one that justified the denial of the rights of blacks because they might become as corrupt as their white oppressors. It had the logic of arresting people for crimes they might commit.

At the same time, throughout history few have ever yielded power to people they oppressed and subsequently continued to live under their rule. When colonial rulers yielded power, they packed up and returned home.

But one observation, cynical or not, was going to have more than a modicum of truth. Blacks would become just as power hungry as whites as their initial success aimed at decency and equality escalated their aspirations.

Permitting people to sit where they pleased on a bus or eat at a lunch counter was common decency.

Equal opportunity for all people served a social benefit of providing society with access to the largest pool of talent. Three black women mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, were critical to America’s winning the space race.

Successful political movements do not stop when their goals are achieved but transform themselves to seek higher aspirations. All political movements eventually move as far to the extremes as possible. Tocqueville expressed this in his image of the French Revolution as a cart running down a hill.

The civil rights movement evolved from non-violence, to directed resistance (a strategy of crossing the line to make law enforcement use violence), and finally to outright violence. Despite assurances to the contrary, equal opportunity became transformed into the ludicrous notion of equal result.

Where once integration and access to basic Constitutional freedoms were the goals, now a new wave of segregation is swelling up on America’s campuses with calls for separate dormitories, separate graduations, separate admissions standards, separate grading (sympathy grading) standards, and unconstitutional limitations on speech that the “previously oppressed” call offensive, racist, or simply do not like.

Some campuses hold a day when “people of color” and their allies bar white students from setting foot on campus. Administrators either condone the action, do little if anything to prevent it, or in some case punish whites who have the temerity to walk on campus on those days.

Conferences and seminars are held for “people of color” a phrase with a hostile political message that unites all people who are not white against white people, even though this union contains people who have almost nothing in common except racial antipathy.

So, was the good ole boy who sat across the table from us in the campus pub more than half a century ago correct in his cynical prognosis of the future? It is difficult to acknowledge that some of the idealism of one’s youth has been flushed down the political drain with the harsh realities of the present. Certainly, none of us imagined a scene where so-called “people of color” would prevent whites from coming on campus because of the color of their skin -- just as back then, we were horrified by the image of Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati, and a distinguished fellow with the Haym Salomon Center.