Considering History: Civil Rights, Racism, and the Question of American Progress

When it comes to key issues such as white supremacist violence, voting rights, and structural inequity and inequality, America remains far too close to where it was in the summer of 1963.

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a televised presidential address on the question of race and civil rights. The speech addressed specific, ongoing events: earlier that day Alabama Governor George Wallace had literally blocked two African American students, Vivian Malone and James A. Hood, from enrolling at the University of Alabama; in response Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard, after the arrival of which Wallace backed down and Malone and Hood successfully integrated the university. But Kennedy used his June 11 address and its national platform to go much further than that targeted response, proposing sweeping civil rights legislation that his administration would subsequently send to Congress.

JFK gives a speech on civil rights from the Oval Office
JFK giving his speech on civil rights on June 11, 1963 (JFK Library)

Like Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington speech, delivered two-and-a-half months later, Kennedy’s speech frames the events of that time through the fraught question of American progress. As Kennedy notes, “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free.” In his speech’s opening paragraphs, King extends and deepens that point: “But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity; one hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial
Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, D.C., Aug. 28, 1963 (Wikimedia Commons)

A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, America had made painfully little progress on issues of racialdiscrimination, oppression, and violence. But what about now, 57 years after Kennedy’s speech, more than half a century beyond the March on Washington? While some progress has unquestionably been made, when it comes to key issues such as white supremacist violence, voting rights, and structural inequity and inequality, America remains far too close to where it was in the summer of 1963.

The areas on which the most overt progress has been made tend to be those that were directly covered by the Civil Rights Act, the July 1964 law that resulted from Kennedy’s proposal. Institutions like schools and businesses can no longer discriminate against Americans based on their race, nor any other element of their identities (although the legal battle over discrimination based on sexual orientation continues to rage). That progress is about not only access but also equality: institutions can also no longer create separate, segregated spaces for individuals of different races, and must instead offer the same opportunities or face legal and financial penalties; in one of the most famous such cases, In 1994 Denny’s restaurants were proven to be discriminating against African-American patrons and had to pay tens of millions of dollars in settlements.

But as Kennedy’s speech acknowledges, civil rights is about more than just equality of access or opportunity, and instead represents what he calls “a moral issue … as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution”: “whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated,” whether every American can “enjoy the full and free life which all of us want.” And on a number of levels, African Americans continue to be denied the full protection of the law that would guarantee such freedom from discrimination and oppression.

John F. Kennedy meeting with leaders of the Civil Rights Movement
Kennedy meeting with civil rights leaders. Left to right: Willard Wirtz (Secretary of Labor); Floyd McKissick (CORE); Mathew Ahmann (National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice); Whitney Young (National Urban Leage); Martin Luther King, Jr. (SCLC); John Lewis (SNCC); Rabbi Joachim Prinz (American Jewish Congress); A. Philip Randolph; Reverend Eugene Carson Blake (partially visible behind Randolph); President Kennedy; Walter Reuther (labor leader); Vice President Lyndon Johnson (partially visible behind Reuther); and Roy Wilkins (NAACP) (Library of Congress)

Protection from racist violence remains frustratingly rare for 21st century African Americans. Some of the foundational incidents of the Civil Rights Movement featured an absence of such protection, from the lynching of Emmett Till and the sham trial that followed it to the ubiquitous sexual violence that precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott. Yet despite civil rights laws and more recent follow-ups like the 2019 anti-lynching legislation, those who commit acts of violence against African Americans still all too often escape justice. Some of those are civilians committing extra-judicial lynchings, like George Zimmerman’s 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin or the two men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in February (and the third who filmed it). But many are officers of the law, such as the police officers involved in the 698 shootings of African Americans between 2017 and March 2020 (22 percent of the 3,215 total shootings over that time; in another 629 shootings the victim’s race was unreported, so the percentage is likely higher still). Many of those citizens and officers were never charged with a crime; of those few who have been indicted, the vast majority were (like George Zimmerman) acquitted on all counts.

One of the principal means through which such legal injustices can be challenged is by voting in new officials, and the Civil Rights Act’s 1965 counterpart, the Voting Rights Act, extended federal voting protections to African Americans. But in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court ruled that key Voting Rights Act protections were unconstitutional, adding that the country “has changed” and that such protections are thus no longer as necessary as they were in 1965. In the half-decade since the decision, that opinion has been proven entirely incorrect, as countless measures have been enacted that work purposefully and effectively to limit and deny the vote for African Americans and other communities of color. The proponents of such measures, which often closely mirror pre-Voting Rights Act practices such as poll taxes and “literary clauses,” have consistently admitted that suppressing the vote among those particular American communities is their goal.

While of course African Americans want the same legal and democratic rights as all Americans, their ultimate goals are even more fundamental and deep-seated: as James Baldwin put it in a 1968 speech, “I simply want to be able to raise my children in peace, and arrive at my own maturity in my own way in peace.” But systemic, structural inequities and inequalities make those goals far less achievable for African Americans than their white fellow citizens. Take two elements of my seemingly progressive home state of Massachusetts, for example. Massachusetts’ public schools are significantly more racially segregated in the 2010s than they were a few decades earlier, with the schools with the highest percentage of students of color receiving over $1000 less in annual funding per pupil. And not coincidentally, a groundbreaking 2017 investigative series by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team found the median net worth for an African-American family in Boston to be $8 (that’s not a typo, it’s 8 dollars), compared to a median net worth of $247,500 for white families.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are the inalienable rights that the Declaration of Independence identifies as core values of the United States of America. In June 1963, the proposed Civil Rights Act (like the Civil Rights Movement) sought to better protect those rights and thus make them more genuinely attainable for African Americans. As of June 2020, it remains an open and crucial question whether the nation has progressed closer to that promise, and what we must do to ensure real progress from here.

Featured image: Lyndon Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act (Wikimedia Commons / LBJ Library / Public Domain)

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  1. All I can say is that while one police officer cut off George Floyd’s breathing with his heavy boot on his neck for more than 8 minutes, the other 3 officers did nothing to stop him. This reminds me of when Kitty Genovese was killed while she was screaming for help, but ALL her neighbors ignored her cries to help her. But the difference is those officers were sworn to uphold the law, which they did not, and they are as culpable as Chauvin for the homicide of Mr. Floyd.

    ONE of those cops should have exercised his moral and legal authority to tell Officer Chauvin to knock it off, the perpetrator is subdued. I am not sure what Mr. Floyd said or did to Officer Chauvin, but Chauvin is not paid to be judge, jury and executioner, and NONE of the other officers should have let it happen.

    Maybe this really did happen through a pernicious racism that denies black people the same legal protections that white people would receive. Not to blame the mayor of Minneaopolis, because his administration really did try to educate their police force to avoid these gross miscarriages of law enforcement, but administrative policy can only do so much when the culture is so thoroughly ingrained to mistreat black people, whether they are perpetrators or not. So there needs to be statutory reform with real teeth to correct his problem, the F.O.P. be damned.

    The time for white people ( I am in my 60’s and I am white) to minimize institutional racism is over. Fix it now, or something worse will come, either in the form of Fascism or Marxism.

  2. There’s a lot in these comments that I’m not going to respond to, but I did want to say this:

    One central change for the worse since the 1960s that I didn’t have room to get into in the column is the rise of the carceral state and mass incarceration. Systems that have affected African Americans, and especially African American men, disproportionately to the rest of the population. Nothing has done more to destroy “the African American family” than these systems.

    With those statistics in mind, there are really only two fundamental ways one can explain them. You could argue that African Americans are more prone to crime than the rest of America, an overtly racist argument. Or you could argue that the system has in a number of ways targeted and marked these communities, and then think about how much that reveals about the institutionalized racism at the heart of so many national policies over the last half century.


  3. What a disappointment to see The Saturday Evening Post following the acceptable view, wildly inaccurate though it is.

    I don’t know the author’s age. I’m 68. I’m white, Southern, and remember the Jim Crow system well. I also remember how exhilarated I was when, in 1964, it started to crash.

    The great mystery about black America is this: how did a people whose indices of social and familial health in 1960, despite the prevalence of racism, were excellent begin to decline in virtually all aspects after the civil rights gains of the 1960s? It is literally impossible to blame this on any imagined illiberality in the majority of white Americans, because blacks, who comprised about 12% of the population in the 1960s, could not possibly have secured civil rights if white Americans hadn’t wanted them to do so.

    All of society began to collapse in the 1960s, but the disappearance of the black family does appear to have been in the forefront of this collapse. It took a few decades for white Americans to catch up, but we’ve certainly done so.

    America is a nation in severe decline for primarily spiritual reasons, but we seem to have embraced semiliteracy, appalling “music,” and a tastelessness and vulgarity in the way we conduct our lives which the vast majority of all Americans would have been shocked by in 1960.

    George Floyd’s life in this world is over. So, in any meaningful sense of the idea, is ex – Officer Chauvin’s, and the other now ex – officers who stood by and let the killing proceed. And that is exactly as it should be.

    What should not be is a guilting of white America for what happened to Mr Floyd. That is unjust, because the vast majority of white Americans are appalled by what happened to Mr Floyd.

    The dream of the civil rights movement was a “colorblind” America, in which people would be judged by the content of their character. Instead, we are moving rapidly into a zeitgeist in which white Americans are guilty because we’re white.

    There is a great malignancy which, for all our decadence, we could do something about, and which, if we were to do it, would make life in this country less intolerable than it is quickly becoming: we could recognize the stupidity and destructiveness of forty years of trickle down economics, which has done deep cruelty to scores of millions of American lives of every race.

    American civic life is being killed off by income inequality which is worse than that of the Gilded Age. We need to restore the tax structure to what it was in the half century before the 80s, stop the looting of the rest of us by the billionaire class, and cut our preposterous defense spending by 75%. Think of what would be possible for us to do with the trillions of dollars which would be available to us!

  4. These are two interesting commentaries on the last 57 years of the history of civil rights in this country. They are a mixture of truth, half truths, facts, fantasy, intellectual dishonesty, wishful thinking and straight up BS. Since the beginning of time there have been the haves and the have not’s and I suspect that will be true till the end of time. The term “slavery” is thrown around like it’s never happened before in history of the world. Question, how long were the Jews (God’s chosen people) held in “slavery” in Egypt, and then wondered around in the wilderness for 40 years before they entered the promise land. After all of that, many of them were not allowed to enter the promise land.

    I believe this country is the current Promise Land of the world. I have been fortunate in my lifetime to serve this great country in the military, see a lot of other countries around the world and their standard of living. After serving my country I was able to go to a University where I studied, got a degree that prepared for for a good career. All that I am and have was done with hard work, not hand outs or by looting and burning down other peoples dreams so I could steal something that did not belong to me or that someone else had work their butts off to give their family a better life. Plane and simple that is not the America I know and love! I find it hard to believe that a group of people, white, black, brown, yellow, green or purple (what ever the hell that matters) think so little of themselves and/or others, can truly believe that it is ok to destroy someones life’s work that you are not willing to put in the effort to achieve for yourself. There are a lot of countries in this great big world we live in, so if you truly believe you would be better educated with the same amount of effort that you are currently putting into it, would be more prosperous and have a greatly improve quality of life there, then by all means load up all your stuff and move out of this country so someone else can live and enjoy the fruits of their LABOR!

    The absolute fact about how to have much better and meaningful relationships among individuals or groups of people is first and foremost there HAS TO BE A REAL desire to develop and have a better relationship based on the wants and needs of all parties evolved that is built on trust and understanding and a willingness to compromise. It is impossible to have a relationship with yourself, it still takes two or more. Even your relationship with the Lord will take two. If our country is to come together it will take a lot of want to, love, understanding, trust and forgiveness. My hope for this great country we all live in is in the golden rule -treat others as we want to be treated & love our neighbors as ourselves. Stop and think about what we say, how we act, and how we treat each other.
    May God Bless You and Continue to Bless America and all who call this great country home.

  5. So very sad to experience hate, discrimination, bigotry, and an obsession for “superiority” in 2020. The U.S. Constitution in words outlined the ability to have prosperity for all, and that all men are created equal. The attempt for civil rights legislation to correct the injustices was noble but the practical applications of the environment was and is contradictory today to the ideals of equality and justice for all.

    Superiority is a demonic tactic which breeds anger, hate, and violence. The Asian countries had slaves. The Roman Empire had slaves. The Egyptians had slaves. The list is endless. Even the Kings in Africa sold their own people on the Ivory Coast to the European slave traders. Columbus enslaved Native Americans and transported them to Spain and Europe, even though many of them died in transport. And in the American practice of slavery the parents and children were separated from one another for life. Pure evil. Would rationality and common sense for any of of us to have our loved ones be taken from us be acceptable? Should we protect them at all costs? Is it justifiable homicide to kill someone who is attempting kidnapping of our children.

    The double standard exists. It is justified when rationalizing wealth and economic power. So crying out for the injustices are not validated. Sad. Martin Luther King had a dream. It was a vision that people can exist equally in harmony. So simple. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was on target. A rainbow existence. All of the beautiful colors. Just as God created. How boring would it be to visit the Butchart Gardens in British Columbia, or the Peace Gardens in North Dakota and see only purple flowers, even though purple is beautiful. For all of the colors are beautiful.

    All people will have no skin color upon death. Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. No color. So the root and intent of discrimination should be suspect to superiority as the catalyst. When visiting my union members in the workplace, a wake up call surfaced with the concept of feeling superior. For at 1 lunchroom table, a group of Caucasian members who all went to the same church started their differentiation with the work position held. The A position was superior, while the B and C position was next in order. And the last position–the D position was inferior to all.

    Conclusively, in religious theory, an angel named Lucifer was cast out of heaven for his perception of being equal or even superior to God. Wayne W. Dyer, author of your Sacred Self, 1995, wrote that if you question either your superiority or inferiority, then you are questioning the power of God, for that power exists equally in everyone.

    Superiority views are still with us guided by a very strong demon which is ever present today. Good vs. Evil, will be a free agency choice to determine an individual path. Ben Railton’s article hits the nerves of our history and the insatiable appetite for some to feel, powerful, and superior in all aspects of their life’s decisions.

  6. i agree that black americans have not been treated fairly. when FDR took office, i believe the percentage of blacks in prison equaled that of whites. so what happened? many of his policies did not help them. one only needs to read the history of his administration.
    when senator patrick moynihan made a statement in regard to births among unmarried black women he was ridiculed. but in truth children need a father in their life that is present in the home. there are generations now that have had no guidance and that has not helped their situation there has to be a way to help these children.

  7. This article protrays JFK as the leader on eliminating racial discrimination in the 1960’s but JFK himself would not allow Sammy Davis Jr to perform in the White House.

    This is from ABC news on April 18, 2014, “Sammy Davis Jr. was at the height of his stardom in 1961 when he and close friend Frank Sinatra campaigned to elect President John F. Kennedy, but after Davis married Swedish actress May Britt, Kennedy refused to let him perform at his inauguration, Davis’ daughter claims in a new book.”

    Also this biased author also fails to mention that George Zimmerman shot the young man in self-defense when the guy was pounding his head into the concrete payment.

    We do have a long way to go in race relations and all parties must be committed to dialogue and being part of the solution instead of holding on to old biases and hatred.

  8. The murder of George Floyd we witnessed last week was one of THE worst things I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. He was cooperating, not resisting arrest (regarding the money), was in hand cuffs, and had non-criminal cops been there, would have been taken to the police station.

    That did not happen. We KNOW Derek Chauvin killed him, and how, as he pleaded for mercy over and over again; unable to breathe. Let me tell you, I would NOT want to encounter this cop with what, 18 prior offenses in any manner, and I’m white.

    Our nation was born out of this kind of unbelievable dichotomy. On the one hand we were founded on the most enlightened, aspirational principles of equality any country was ever founded ON, yet 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence (wrongly) were slave owners themselves.

    Less than 100 years later over 600,000 men died in the Civil War over this horrific situation. Although slavery as such had ended in 1865, it’s never really left, still taking violent and other various forms of oppression. It took another 99 years for The Civil Rights Act to be enacted by LBJ.

    It may not be a coincidence that the tragic event of last week and resulting rioting/looting/fires/destruction, are happening during this pandemic. I, and MANY people I know, have had strong feelings this country has been a powder keg waiting to explode for many years. As horrible as this corona virus has been, it has greatly slowed down America’s out of control cycle of insanity of “everyone being so busy” that no time is ever taken to make the effort to fix what’s wrong. Doing what we’ve been doing isn’t working. This nation is on life support.

    Our government is completely corrupt, working against the all but the richest Americans; many who are completely undeserving of any of that wealth by the way. We’ve had the most toxic of the toxic in the “entertainment industry” building and centering an extremely high percentage of films (by the likes of Michael Bay and others) glorifying endless carnage and pyrotechnics; non-stop. Very toxic for all people; black, white, whomever. The music industry contributing it’s poison for the last 30+ years.

    A total cleanse and detoxing of our government and corporate America (if it were possible) would go a long way in rectifying so many of our nations problems. A balanced, humane system that would be fair to the majority of Americans in being able to get ahead, and regain faith in the U.S. again. Stop the political correctness that’s intended to keep the status quo destroying our country. These are just a few things, but significant, that (ideally) would go on a pie-chart of what should be abolished and be replaced with.

    What I mentioned in the last paragraph would also have a very beneficial effect on black Americans, by default. I know what I say here will never happen because our country has a knee on its neck suffocating all of us. Greed is destroying the planet, people, wildlife, our oceans and its life underwater; everything. What do we do when everything’s bought and paid for with the fix in by nameless, faceless monster multi-billionaires?!


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