A congressman's cry for racial justice

One of the many tragic messages of the Miami riots in May was that it took such extreme rage and violence to draw major national attention again to the issue of race relations.

For most of the past ten years, that issue has almost faded into a non-issue, publicly. Compared with the 1960s, the past decade could be described as "the sedentary seventies."

It was a decade of slowdown of progress. It was a decade of delusion by many Americans who thought no more action was necessary to secure justice for all. And it was a decade of despair for many Americans still denied opportunity because of their race or ancestry.

The avoidance of this issue by many segments of the government, the press, and the public contributed indirectly to the racial upheaval in Miami and to the tensions which exist in many other communities.

Earlier this year, on the 20th anniversary of the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter sit-in, I began to take stock of developments since the beginning of the civil rights movement.

There were milestone achievements: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Individuals of talent and will broke through previously impregnable color barriers. In many areas, blacks and Hispanics have made gains in political influence and professional advancement.

But despite the successes and gains, millions remain mired in misery. By some economic measurements, the circumstances are worse now for some groups of our citizens than during the civil rights movement.

* Twenty percent more black families are living in poverty now than in 1970.

* Approximately 7.5 million of the nation's 25 million blacks -- three of ten -- live in poverty. One of ten whites lives in poverty.

* The income of black families is still only half that of white families.

* The unemployment rate for blacks and Hispanics is twice the rate for white workers.

* In 1960, 51 percent of young whites and 44 percent of young blacks were employed, a difference of 7 percentage points. Today, the gap is more than 25 percentage points.

Many details of the most recent annual report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights are discouraging. Among its conclusions:

"Decent housing for older persons, minorities, and female-headed households remains undelivered. . . .

"Minority and women's unemployment levels have remained intolerably high. . . .

"Past efforts have not brought minority businesses into the nation's economic mainstream. . . .

"Tensions between groups have increased."

The doldrums of the seventies have diminished the hope born in the 1960s movement. Martin Luther King's dream is still beautiful, but it is blurred now.

My concern is that the remaining hope and the enduring dream might vanish within another few years of national indifference.

The immediate danger is the probable impact of confused national economic policies and the likely consequences of a severe recession.

Millions of Americans -- an unfair share of them blacks and Hispanics -- would be pushed more deeply into the despairing world of poverty. And the unrelenting challenge of race relations could be pushed so far down the list of public priorities that only radical action could retrieve it.

The quick fading of national attention to the Miami riots suggests some tough questions:

Is the nation's capacity to act on continuing challenges now limited by an amoral attention span, in which even the most drastic social upheavals disappear from the news after a few days?

Is there some undefined but lowered quota of crises which the nation is now able to face, such as one international threat and one domestic economic threat, with no energy left for the struggle for racial justice?

Has political America demoted the noble principle of justice to an elastic notion -- important one year but not the next, allowing the ragged rationalization that a group of Americans used to be fifth-class citizens and today they are second-class citizens so now we can relax?

To those anxious questions, I must answer "No" -- with a qualification.

I remain hopeful that this nation can maintain racial peace and can achieve the goal of full justice and equal opportunity for all.That hope was bolstered by recent action by the House of Representatives to strengthen the nation's fair housing laws.

But for the future -- and at the very least -- we have to face the ugly reality that poverty and discrimination still stalk the ghettos and barrios of America.

With such a realistic view, we have a chance, perhaps, to regain some of the powerful spirit of cooperation and commitment of the 1960s.

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