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What King and Others Wrought

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What King and Others Wrought

The titanic achievements of America’s civil rights movement refute claims by the Left that the country remains “systemically racist.” January 17, 2021
The Social Order

It is a measure of the moral and intellectual decrepitude of the Left in the United States that it has in recent years been attempting to depict one of the great triumphs of American democracy, the civil rights movement, as an abject failure.

For centuries, a deep vein of racism flowed through the national fabric—legally, commercially, and socially. Despite the end of slavery in 1865, blacks were still largely denied the benefits of citizenship. In many states they were effectively disenfranchised, their children consigned to grossly inferior schools. More than 4,000 blacks were lynched between 1880 and 1950. Cadillac dealers wouldn’t sell to black customers. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel, nominated for an Academy Award for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, had to sit at the preceding banquet at a separate table, in the back of the room. The highest-ranking blacks in the United States Navy were wardroom stewards.

After World War II, this began to change, slowly at first. In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in modern Major League Baseball. The following year, President Truman desegregated the armed forces. In 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that separate facilities are inherently unequal.

Then, on December 5, 1956, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, was ordered to turn over her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white passenger. She refused and was arrested. Black civil rights leaders organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The Supreme Court then affirmed a lower court decision that segregation on publicly owned transportation systems violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The transformation of American race relations then moved into high gear. Adhering to the doctrine of nonviolence, black civil rights leaders and their white allies pushed ever harder. The 1957 Civil Rights Act established the Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. It separated federal jury rules from state ones, allowing blacks to sit on federal juries even when state courts didn’t allow it.

Increasingly, federal courts ordered school systems to be desegregated. There was great resistance at first, most famously in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, when nine black students were chosen to attend the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. In 1963, when Alabama authorities brutally attacked peaceful marchers in Birmingham, the TV footage shocked the nation and pressure built still more, greatly helped by the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 transformed race relations in America. It forbade discrimination in virtually all forms of commerce and the unequal application of voting requirements. The days of all-white lunch counters and hotels were over, as was the relegation of blacks to movie theater balconies. Jim Crow was dead.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 quickly followed, outlawing racial discrimination in voting practices. Crucially, it allowed the appointment of federal officials to oversee voting procedures in districts that had a history of voter suppression. Those districts were also forbidden to make any changes in voting laws without preclearance from the federal government.

The political results of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were immediate and titanic. Nearly 250,000 African-Americans registered to vote in 1965 alone. In the covered districts, the percentage of blacks registered to vote rose from 29.2 percent in 1965 to 52.1 percent two years later. There had been only three black state legislators in the 11 former Confederate states in 1965. Twenty years later, there were 176. Black office holders nationwide grew from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,912 a decade later. In 1989, Douglas Wilder was elected governor of Virginia, the first black governor in American history. Now that African-Americans wielded the power of the vote, politicians had no choice but to cater to their political interests. Previously staunch segregationists such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond changed their positions to remain politically viable.

Thus, in a mere 20 years, the entire legal apparatus of segregation had been swept away, and blacks became fully citizens of the United States. As the older generations who had, in Oscar Hammerstein’s words, been “carefully taught” faded away, racism faded from the hearts and minds of millions of Americans as well. Racially, the United States had, at long last, become truly e pluribus unum.

What is most remarkable about the American civil rights movement, perhaps, is how little bloodshed took place, despite the passions that it raised. The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, lists the names of only 41 people martyred in the cause of equal rights between 1954 and 1968.

That is an astounding fact. Never in human history has so deep a national divide involving racial, religious, or ethnic groups been healed so quickly and at such a low cost in lives. For comparison, as many as 2 million people died in the violence that accompanied the transformation of the British Raj into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India in 1947.

Today, a statue of Rosa Parks stands in Statuary Hall of the Capitol in Washington, donated by the state of Alabama. The Little Rock Nine are memorialized in statues on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol. And the only American national holiday observed throughout the country that honors a single individual is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Today nothing prevents an African-American from rising to whatever heights he seeks—as Barack Obama proved in 2008.

But the Left, stuck in the past, and always looking to belittle the United States and its accomplishments, insists that the country remains “systemically racist.”

Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

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