Beyond racism: A 'Little Rock Nine' member and civil rights
Getting beyond racism, a 'Little Rock Nine' member looks back on the evolution of US civil rights
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Compared with what my birth parents were able to do, this seemed like magic to me.Skip to next paragraph
As years passed, I realized that the McCabes were a part of a process that would prepare me to chase my own dreams, equality, and dignity with determination, whether I got it immediately or not.
It is this seeking process that ultimately leads to the erosion of the great racial divide: It is the way the civil rights movement has moved most of America from the behavior of a mean-spirited, selfish toddler to a curious adolescent, willing to keep an open mind and struggle for the often-delayed gratification of change.
I've come to believe that racial disharmony is sparked by a single thing: the individual's search for equality, dignity, and acknowledgment by others. In my experience, fighting for my own equality, I've concluded that the civil rights movement served us all because it created a more level field for interaction, one where everyone has a greater opportunity to pursue, acquire, and sustain personal equality.
Certainly many people are still denied their rights to equal opportunity for education, jobs, marriage, housing, and other needs. But it was the dignity of Martin Luther King's dream that forever grants permission to others, who might never have had one, to grow their own.
Now every black baby born in the 'hood, every Latino baby born in the barrio, and every gay baby born in the burbs can dream of claiming their equality, too. It is the nature of this dream – the depth and breadth of it – that shapes and fuels evolution of the civil rights movement in modern America.
We are without a doubt better off than we were in 1957, as far as race relations go. Certainly race relations are not perfect, and, to make things even more complex, the racial divide no longer encompasses only black and white because we are a tapestry of different races and religions. But because more of us now can see exactly what we want, more of us can now define what our individual equality might look like. It is something we couldn't do before we expressed our grief, anger, and sometimes deadly violence in the civil rights movement.
But we have an African-American president – and that has defined a bit of what my own equality looks like. This man of mixed racial heritage has brought light that helps us glimpse equality where it may not have been visible before. And seeing equality helps us be equal.
• Melba Patillo-Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated all-white Central High School in 1957, chairs the communication department at Dominican University of California, in San Rafael. She is the author of "Warriors Don't Cry."