In the early and mid-1960's, the top news in this country was often African Americans' struggle for civil rights. Marches and lunch-counter sit-ins; Freedom Rides; Ku Klux Klan violence; FBI spying; protesters branded like cattle in a Mississippi prison; the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and others: that was America 50 years ago.
Nearly all of those events took place in the South, where officially sanctioned discrimination kept black Americans segregated in separate schools, separate neighborhoods, separate occupations, separate restrooms and hotels and bus seats and restaurants.
But while liberal Northerners traveled south to join the protests – and some lost their lives there – racism and discrimination were by no means limited to the states of the former Confederacy. And in 1964, the impoverished, overcrowded cores of Rochester, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities erupted in riots.
Since then, Americans have passed the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, founded Head Start to provide early education for poor children, created numerous anti-poverty programs, and elected black mayors, legislators, governors, and a president.
But those successes can seem almost an aberration. In Rochester and many other American cities, poverty and unemployment among African Americans are at stunning levels. Despite decades of education reform programs, most African-American children in Rochester and many other American cities leave school so poorly educated that they have virtually no hope of getting a good job.
We have Brown v. Board of Education and the Fair Housing Act, but schools and neighborhoods in Monroe County and many other regions of the country are as segregated as any region in the South in the 1960's.
On a trip South visiting family earlier this month, Bill and I spent an afternoon in the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Created adjacent to and inside the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the museum traces the experience of African Americans from slavery through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 1960's, and the Black Power movement, to today.
Touring the museum is a richly educational, intense, emotionally draining experience. And it is impossible to take it all in – to read of the atrocities of slavery, see the videos of protesters being beaten at lunch counters and in marches, watch water from fire hoses driving young people against a wall, read news reports of the children killed in the bombing of the Birmingham church, see the balcony where King was shot – and not be deeply troubled.
And just as troubling as we near the 50th anniversary of the Rochester riots: the realization that despite the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, Brown, and all the other efforts, the high-poverty neighborhoods of Rochester and many other cities are still in crisis. And we continue to lose generation after generation of Americans.
Racism – and the discrimination, violence, and poverty it has spawned – still dog this country. And there are consequences, not just for the individuals trapped in the poverty and kept back by the racism, but also for the larger community. There are consequences, just as there were in the 1960's.
None of us, on our own, can turn this around. We need real change, and real leadership, of the kind that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders – and Lyndon Johnson – showed. And it is hard to be optimistic, given the hostility of so many Americans.
But surely we can deal with the problems on our own little patch of earth. Rochester is a small enough community that we should be able to come up with real solutions and take care of our own.
Little efforts aren't enough. It will take doing hard things, as Mark Hare's cover story this week makes clear. But surely, after 50 years, it's time to put together a community-wide effort and make a start.