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QUOTATION: People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people. Of course, that is not true. Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote - a very different thing. - Walter H. Judd

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2004-07-02 - 6:11 p.m.

A Promise Only Partially Kept

by Joan Callaway

Today marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, a ruling that ended school segregation and energized the civil rights movement.

I am reminded today not only of when our family lived in New Orleans in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, but of other times and places that had to do with discrimination.

My first experience came when I was not quite eleven after Pearl Harbor Day on December 7, 1941. It was not long after this bombing that my brother’s friend from Grays Harbor Junior College and his family were taken away from their home and business to an internment camp for the duration of the war. It was said, “It is for their own protection,” after their radio repair store was broken into and ransacked, but we knew it was because of the color of their skin and the shape of their eyes. They were of Japanese descent, but as American as you or I. This rounding up and internment only happened to the Japanese, not to the Germans or Italians,who were also part of the Axis side of the war. My family, who was “color-blind”, was incensed by this injustice, but there seemed nothing to be done. This happened to Japanese Americans all over the West coast; it was feared they might be offering help to the Japanese by signaling to submarines off the West Coast.

The only people of color I remember in the town where I grew up were the Native Americans, then called “Indians,” from the Quinalt Indian Reservation at Tahola, and a few Japanese Americans. I don’t remember any Blacks, or Negroes as they were then called, until we moved to Tacoma and then only a very few. Black Americans began to come to the West Coast in larger numbers during the war when they were needed for work in the shipyards and in place of the young men who had gone to war. Even the troops were segregated during World War II, and it was not until the Tuskegee Airmen that Blacks were allowed to become pilots in any branch of the service.

No black students were enrolled at Reed College in Portland when I went there in 1950, but Senator Joseph McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee were hard at work accusing people, including professors at Reed, of being Communists. They ruined the careers of many innocent men and women during this Cold War era; many were “blacklisted” and unable to get jobs because of their “blackened” names.

It is no wonder that the search goes on for a name for the Afro-American; the change in my lifetime from Negro to Black to Afro-American, all to designate people of color, perhaps since “black” has many negative connotations. The term blacklist means denouncement, condemnation; blackball means rejection or disapproval; a blackguard is a scoundrel or ne’er do well; to blacken one’s name is to slander or badmouth; blackmail is to extort or shake-down; the black sheep is an outcast or pariah. The word “black” is synonymous with threatening, menacing, evil, wicked, disgraceful, contemptible, as well as dark, ebony, or soiled.

Glen and I, who had found the Methodist Church stifling, had joined the First Unitarian Church in Seattle and become involved with teaching in the Church School, as well as participating in discussion groups about the civil rights movement. We raised money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of black churches and ministers which, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., formed the backbone of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

The SCLC was founded in 1957 after the bus boycott (Rosa Parks) in Montgomery, Alabama, during 1955 and 1956. The boycott led the Supreme Court of the United States to rule in 1956 in favor of a lower court decision striking down the city's segregated seating practices. It inspired many black leaders to believe that nonviolent direct action and protests, like the boycott, might succeed in battles against segregation, where the non-confrontational legal strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had yielded only slow change.

SCLC was closely associated with King, who believed that nonviolent civil disobedience could help to end segregation and foster social justice for blacks. King's charismatic personality dominated SCLC, but other activists also contributed to its success. Ralph Abernathy, King's closest associate, was frequently jailed with King for acts of civil disobedience. Jesse Jackson, a clergyman who led efforts to pressure Chicago businesses to hire more blacks in the mid-1960s, became a well-known civil rights activist in the 1970s and 1980s and is still active today in U. S. politics.

California must have been a more welcoming place for Negroes from the South to come because when we arrived in Berkeley we saw a much more diverse population. Glen had not been in the School of Public Health long when he met Joe McKenzie, Irv Staller, and Dave Arnold, who were in the class ahead of him. Irv and Alice were a Jewish couple, Joe and Mary are Black-Americans from the South, but who have both been in the Bay Area for some time, Dave and Carol conservative button-down middle Americans, and Glen and I avowed liberal Unitarians – an odd mix, but one that worked. We became fast friends. We had monthly dinner parties, sometimes playing bridge, but mostly enjoying many discussions, heated and otherwise – civil rights always a topic.

Not long after we moved to Mill Valley, my friend Joan Dunkel and I heard the Marin City Day Care Center needed volunteers to help with the many children of day workers. The first day we got there we were pleased to notice they had shelves and shelves of puzzles and activities for the children, more than we had anticipated from what we had heard about the Center. We had heard that it was primarily custodial care without much creative play. However, when we started to get the equipment down off the shelves and involve the children in playing with blocks, puzzles, games, etc., the supervisor cautioned us that if we got those things down, we’d just have to put them back up later in the day.

In further conversations with this Head Start teacher, she expressed the opinion that she’d been there for years and was now “teaching” 2nd generation black kids and that if she lived long enough she would probably see their kids there, too. She further explained to us that the girls would end up pregnant as teen-agers and become house cleaners and on welfare; if they were boys, they’d quite probably end up in jail or worse. She saw this cycle continuing indefinitely and we feared she could not be convinced that her role with these pre-schoolers might have any impact on changing it.

We told her we were quite willing to be sure the equipment was returned to the shelves at the end of the mornings we worked, which unfortunately were only a couple of days a week. In addition to using the materials they already had, we brought in tape recorders and cameras. This was the first time that many of these children had heard their own voices and in some cases even seen their own photographs. We encouraged all of the activities of the first-rate nursery schools our children had attended – everything from role playing after story hour to churning butter for our morning graham crackers. I’m not sure how much influence we had on the on-going staff, but I remember feeling a sense of satisfaction that at least for awhile these children knew something better than just being watched over!

After a couple of years in Mill Valley, Touro Infirmary, a hospital in New Orleans recruited Glen for the express purpose of integrating the hospital. The 350-bed hospital, which had been founded by a Jewish philanthropist, guided by the moral and ethical principles of Judaism, had since 1852 taken care of African Americans in the out-patient clinics, but had never admitted them as bed-patients. The administrator and board of the hospital explained it would not be an easy job and that it would not be popular with the current patients or with many of the physicians, but it was past time for this to happen. Our plan was to go there for as long as it took to accomplish integration of the hospital.

The first couple of weeks after we arrived in New Orleans we lived in a motel suite, while waiting for our furniture and for our rental house on Pritchard Place to be available. Within days our first encounter with segregation came at the Laundromat with a prominently posted “Whites Only” sign in the window. Although we had warned the children that things would be different in New Orleans than they had experienced in either Washington or California, it caught 12-year old Marci by surprise as she wondered aloud, “Where will we wash our jeans?”

In Washington and California, supermarkets hired high school boys or young men to carry out bags to the cars of the customers; in New Orleans this was a job prized by older black men who relied on the custom of tipping for their pay.

Our rented house was a large old two-story house, complete with sleeping porch and bedrooms with either small closets or non-existent ones, evidence of the age of the house dating back to a time when armoires were used to store one’s clothing. Further evidence was the layout of that section of the City: one street had large expensive houses and the next street had small shot-gun houses, conveniently located for the day workers who cared for the big houses. This should have made federally mandated integration of the schools a simple matter – or so you would have thought. But, in fact, bigotry won out in the end. Louisiana instituted a voucher system, so parents could send their children to private schools. Most white parents, who could afford it, preferred sending their children to one of the many inferior private schools that cropped up in response to the voucher system rather than have their children sit in the same classroom with black children.

The voucher system in New Orleans had seemed a good solution to the reticent whites; their children would now be able to go to private school. But the Country Day elite private schools simply increased their tuition by the amount of the vouchers in order to keep out those who could previously not have afforded their tuition. Many new mediocre to inferior private schools were founded to accommodate the many who were clamoring for their services.

The first year, our four older children went to integrated white schools in an area near Tulane University, which we assumed would be among the better schools in the City. Mark and Laurie in 3rd and 5th grade described their teachers, the Bartchy sisters, as indifferent to Blacks in their classrooms, seemingly acting as though the black children weren’t there most of the time, denigrating them at others.

I can’t remember much else of real significance except for Valerie’s 9th grade social studies experience the following year. Valerie described her male teacher as a bigot in every sense of the word, berating Jews and Blacks equally, coming up with outlandish facts that provoked a disbelieving Valerie, who headed to the library immediately after class each day to find corroborating or contradictory evidence. She went into class the next day armed with quotations and books to substantiate her viewpoint, which almost always was diametrically opposed to the teacher's. She cited chapter and verse, infuriating, if not embarassing, her teacher, who soon suggested to the Principal that Valerie go to the library instead of class since she seemed too advanced for the class.

When we moved to Davis the next year, Valerie commented that school wasn’t nearly as interesting, in fact it was bland compared to New Orleans, because there was not the diversity of opinion and stimulating discussions she had experienced there; it was rather like Disneyland or Pleasantville by comparison. So while on the one hand the education had not been as good, the atmosphere had encouraged deeper thinking on the complex and controversial issues of the times. In Davis schools, mostly white middle class, integration was not much of an issue – there being no more than a handful of blacks and not even many Hispanic-Americans at that time.

One night after our church was fire bombed, our friend Ben Smith, one of the country’s leading Civil Rights attorneys, spoke with us on the Problems of the Civil Rights Lawyer. He proposed that the Negro was the only hope of our being brought back to constitutional law in the South. He gave examples of the complete lack of same, especially in Mississippi, but also said that “between 8:30 last night and midnight there would probably be 50 illegal arrests without probable cause, the same number of illegal searches, etc. right here in New Orleans.” He also said that those people would not get out of jail, because they would have no money to post bail. He told us that furthermore in all of Mississippi there were only six or seven attorneys who would touch a Civil Rights case. He and three others had been banned from the courts of Mississippi. His firm brought suit on behalf of the families of three civil rights workers who were killed while in custody. He said that he personally had phoned the New Orleans FBI office six hours after their arrest, but they had ignored his request. He also called Washington, D. C. as he knew the three were still alive at that time, but the FBI again did nothing for another 24 hours. He thought the things that were said about J. Edgar Hoover were too mild and he wasn’t too thrilled with Bobby Kennedy either, since provisions in the Constitution for federal intervention were too often ignored.

Many would agree, though by any measure, the Civil Rights Act was momentous. Signed by Johnson on July 2, 1964, after a record two-month filibuster by embittered Southern senators, the act's key provisions banned segregation in any facility offering public services and outlawed discrimination in hiring.

In the ensuing four decades, black Americans have made tremendous strides. Their poverty rate has dropped by nearly half; rates of high school graduation and home ownership have soared; blacks preside over major corporations, prestigious universities, the State Department and the American Bar Association.

However, glaring gaps remain. Black earning power is only about 73% of that of whites and their life expectancy is considered six years less. Compared to mostly white schools, predominantly black schools remain underfunded. Black incarceration rates are higher now than they were in 1964. For instance, more young black men have done time in prison than have served in the military or earned a college degree. Nationally, it is reported that about 13% of black men – or 1.4 million in all – are ineligible to vote because of their criminal records. (There is currently a movement to restore voting rights to felons who have a clean record after a specified amount of time.) A high percentage of those jailed are unable to read or write. Once they go to prison, it is almost impossible for them to re-enter society as they have few opportunities for meaningful employment. Recidivism is high. Many inner city areas are plagued with poverty rates among blacks of at least 30 per cent, impoverished schools, high illiteracy, poor families not safe from crime, often living in drug-riddled neighborhoods, and most without health insurance.

The Civil Rights Act resulted from years of relentless campaigning by civil rights leaders, whose protest marches in the South frequently provoked brutal responses from the defenders of segregation. President Johnson, a Texan willing to break with many of his fellow southerners, worked to push through a bold Civil Rights Bill, in spite of hours and hours of filibusters in the Senate.

Unfortunately, as John Kerry said today in a speech in Kansas, "We have not met the promise of Brown when one-third of African-American children live in poverty and only 50% finish high school.” The answer is "higher expectations and greater resources," he said. "It is a matter of common sense and it is a matter of truth that you cannot promise 'no child left behind' and then pursue policies that leave millions of children behind every single day."

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