WASHINGTON — I'm often asked about how blacks were treated back when I was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s - compared with how they are treated today.
Well, we know that blacks have made great strides in their march toward equality - even though they have quite a distance yet to go. So many restrictive laws have been wiped out. And educational and employment opportunities have greatly increased.
Now let me tell you of a conversation I had the other day with an Urbana, Ill., high school classmate (class of '33). We were talking about our attitudes back then toward Negroes - the socially accepted term of that era for blacks - in that central Illinois community, which, along with twin-city Champaign, Ill., had a population of about 30,000. This was in the North; and we thought of ourselves as having no segregation in our housing or in our schools. But the blacks all lived in shabby houses in a border area of our city. And black children automatically huddled together in a corner of our schoolrooms.
"I didn't know any black kids back then," my friend said. "None of us did. There were no rules; but we just didn't mix at all. That was the way it was."
"That was the way it was."
Those are the words that, to me, really pinpoint our progress in the last century: It's no longer the way it is anymore.
And how is it today? The New York Times is publishing an illuminating series about current black-white relations. These stories depict an America that has clearly progressed from the one of a half-century ago which the Kerner Commission found to be two nations, one black and one white. Today - as brought out in the series - African Americans and whites are talking together, in churches, schools, workplaces, and in the military. Yes, they are still struggling to work out their differences and to truly mix. But as we enter the new millennium, race relations are vastly improved over what I observed as a boy.
Even back then there would be an exception, an African American who, somehow, would be able to slip through the de facto segregation. One was Mary Grace Jordan. My high school friend and I were talking about her the other day.
We recalled that when we were seventh-graders, we had an English teacher who, one morning, asked us to write a little paper on a trip we had taken. A hand went up. It belonged to Mary Grace, the only black in that particular class. She was a shy girl, and I remember the anguish in her voice as she said, "Ma'am, I can't do it. I've never been anywhere." The teacher, incredulous, said: "But you've been on some little trips, haven't you - maybe out fishing or a picnic?" "No Ma'am," she said. "I've never been any place."
I know how I felt for this little girl's pain and embarrassment. And I'm sure others in that room did, too. We white kids back then never thought about how hard it was to be a black.
Then there was our class's 25th anniversary get-together, when I was seated next to Mary Grace and her husband. She told me that she - somehow - had been able to break through all the economic and racial barriers and attend the University of Illinois. And she said that after graduation she had been able to carve out a fine career for herself. I knew I was talking to the real hero of our class.
When I was in law school at the U of I in the late '30s, there was one race-related incident that I have often recalled, uncomfortably. One day a professor was talking about the post-Civil War constitutional amendment that stated that no citizen could be denied equal protection under the law. Yet at no time did the teacher or anyone in the class comment about the continuing denial of protection of the law to blacks - particularly in the South, but in the North, too.
There was one black student in the room, the only one in the law school at the time. And I knew that because of his race he had had difficulty in finding housing. Looking back now I wish I had had the courage to speak up in his behalf and ask why that amendment remained nothing but empty words.
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