For Blacks, the Terror Is Gone, but Next Steps Wait
A writer who covered the civil rights movement in King's time worries that much of the momentum for social justice has been lost amid national handwringing over our problems. MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY
ONCE again, as America officially (and, in some cases, grudgingly) acknowledges the debt it owes to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we stop to think about what we have and haven't learned from the years of the civil rights movement. Next month we'll get another crack at it, as libraries, school bureaucracies, and public television unpack their annual observance of Black History Month - our shortest one, as many a cynic has observed.
Cynicism is very much in order these days. There are times when the only rational conclusion can be that our collective conscience has not only learned nothing but actually has regressed from that amazing era that started with the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision and ended with the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march. Consider just a few items from our national inventory of despair:
* Young black men helped form the backbone of the '60s movement in the South. Now it is commonplace to refer to young black men as an endangered species. The government recently released figures showing that in 1989 the death rate for young blacks was 238 percent higher than for young whites. AIDS and homicide are prime reasons. Experimental schools are proposed just to keep black males alive long enough to escape to adulthood.
* The civil rights movement was a time of invigorating hope, much of it brought on by the skillful guidance of the movement by people such as Dr. King. That hope was nourished by sweaty mass meetings in Southern black churches; by the attentiveness and general support of a nationwide audience; by at least promises of help from Washington; by the depraved and stupid nature of the opposition, and by a steady string of hard-fought victories.
Where is that hope now? It is gone the way of most of our hopefulness these sad, gray days, lost in the mire of our perceived inability to do anything to improve our own lot. We treat most of our problems now as insoluble. Political insensitivity and corruption stretch from our national housing agency to our neighborhood savings and loan to the halls (and restaurants) of Congress.
The debate over abortion (if a public melee can be called a debate) seems unending, as does our sometimes justified hysteria over illegal drugs.
In a few short years we have replaced what was a worthy national goal, equality in the workplace, with ceaseless whining about "quotas." When our big cities decline enough, white America abandons them to black leadership, handing over the keys to ruined infrastructure and squandered treasuries.
* The movement drew much of its strength from concerned white Americans, many of whom gave their time and money, some their lives. "Black and white together" was more than just a line from a song. What has happened to that understanding that we're all in this thing together? White Americans seem to have adopted the absurd notion that they can somehow exist separate and independently of black Americans.
* One of the more rewarding, not to mention entertaining, results of the movement was seeing the changes it wrought on elected white politicians. Virtually (and in some cases literally) overnight, concurrent with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, politicians who had kept their jobs by preaching racial hatred learned the correct way to pronounce "Negro" and began proclaiming that the South was far too busy a place to wallow in the disgusting old ways. Today, those politicians have mellowed to the poin t where they can hardly remember the times they shouted "Never!" and other N-words.
Is all this, too, coming unglued? George Bush ran for election as a racial politician, a George Wallace with a Yale diploma. Now David Duke shows what he has learned from President Bush. The code words have changed, but they are still there, still useful in manipulating voters' fears and prejudices.
The situation, in short, is awful. But one thing has changed for the better. Terror is gone.
No matter what presidential candidates say, no matter what decisions the Supreme Court hands down, no matter even what happens to young black males, the era of terror that white America imposed on black America is over. The movement ended it. We may suffer an encore of the cross-burnings and night-riders of decades ago, but we will never go back to the damage they inflicted daily on black Americans and their white supporters.
The eradication of terror would not have been enough for King, just as it is not enough for other veterans of the '60s crusade who survive him. Nor should it be enough for any of us. King and the others knew that once the basic barriers were down - the seg-regated schoolroom, lunch counter, municipal bus, and ballot box - the next step would be breaking economic discrimination.
They knew it would be a terribly difficult step, one that would make the public-accommodations struggle look like the proverbial Sunday-school picnic. But they knew also that the step could not be taken until the monster of terror had been vanquished. And they vanquished it. But the next step is still there to be taken.