The 50th Anniversary of “I Have a Dream” and American Racism.

Posted: September 3, 2013 in "Golden Age, Schm-olden Age"
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I am writing this on Wednesday, August 28th, 2013. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  All month long, NPR has been running stories about the ‘March on Washington’ and King’s timeless speech to commemorate, and investigate what happened that week in 1963, and to ask how far we as a nation and people have come in the fifty years since.  This 7 minute radio interview that was aired a couple weeks ago is an enthralling example NPR’s coverage.  It is the tale of Robert Avery, who at 15 hitchhiked from Alabama to DC in order to be a part of the March.  Take some time, and listen to his incredible story.

Robert Avery.  Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

Robert Avery. Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

http://www.npr.org/2013/08/14/210470828/determined-to-reach-1963-march-teen-used-thumb-and-feet

What an experience! Two poor, country kids with big dreams and determination make their way across a rapidly changing nation, meeting on the way some wonderful Americans, all the while getting a glimpse of American racial hatred. Sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood script. But, it is a real tale; one I plan to use this week in my American History course as we are just beginning to investigate the Civil Rights movement.

march_on_washington_2

All these people were heroes.

I have a feeling that the hardest hitting moment in Avery’s story will probably be the most incomprehensible to my 18 year old students.  In actuality, as a 37 year old historian, I have a hard time grasping it as well.  My students and I live in the post-Civil Rights era; an epoch created by Americans such as Avery. We have only experienced a nation in which the vast majority of citizens, even obvious racists, distance themselves from racism as a concept.  Thus, the outspoken racism that Avery faced in 1963 takes us aback.  It is shocking that fifty years ago many Americans openly accepted racism; or that for some, racism was a worldview held with pride.  Avery illustrates this world with his recollections of 1963 Virginia.  He matter-of-factly remembered that as he and the African-American family he was riding with neared DC, and,

…drove through the mountains, they saw black effigies hanging outside service stations. “You know, the dummies that they hang out, the Rebel flags … hanging from light posts and whatever,” Avery recalls. “That wasn’t sending a signal, that was sending a strong message … So they went to a lot of care to make them to make sure that people understood you can’t stop here and buy gas.”

If you listen to the interview, you can hear Michele Norris stop Avery, with a bit of shock in her voice, and ask him to explain what he means by “effigies hanging outside of gas stations.”  Avery calmly answers her question, providing evidence that such symbols of hatred were normal in the days of Jim Crow.  This was a society that was staunchly racist; justice was by no means blind.  Avery’s attendance at the March on Washington fell on the wrong side of the law.  Actually, the ideas shared during the March would have been illegal in  Jim Crow Mississippi, where,

Any person…who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.

Racist notions that are rarely mentioned in polite private company today, were often spoken in public with no embarrassment in 1963 America. The infamous words of the Virginia trial judge that found Richard and Mildred Loving guilty of interracial marriage prove the point. In reading the verdict against the husband and wife, Judge Leon Bazile stated that,

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.

These words sound like they come from the distant past. In reality, the sentence against the Lovings was passed in 1959.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

These few examples (and there are countless more) illustrate how pernicious American racism was within recent, living memory.  Luckily for myself, and my students, this is not our personal memory. These events are a part of history books; these ideas are depicted in movies.  We are lucky for that, but we should be cautious. Many Americans today rely on self-delusion, ludicrously claiming we live in some utopian, post-racial society. They paint the March on Washington with the brushstrokes of the ancient past.  It is my job, and all of our jobs, to correct this misconception. In a blink of an eye, 50 years have passed; the memories have faded for many, but the scars of that era are still quite fresh. Luckily we have men such as Robert Avery to remind us.

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Comments
  1. Jane Ungari says:

    Great job. Jane

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