There was an expectation that, with the legal ending of segregation, the opportunities for Blacks in America would improve dramatically. I certainly felt that at the time, and also found the same sentiment in South Africa in the late 1990s with the election of Nelson Mandela and ANC rule. In both countries, expectation dashed. I guess it’s the case of marching up the hill, then marching down again.
I travelled across the South on the latter stages of my road trip. Specifically, I took a bus through Mississippi to get closer to the experience of the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s. Ok, the times were significantly different, and the bus lines were extremely limited, but I felt closer to society than driving along in a car.
My feeling is that, though the long arc of the moral universe is bending towards justice – as observed by Martin Luther King Jr – it’s a long, long arc. I came away from the swing through the South, reinforced by what I found on the road trip generally, feeling less optimistic about the pace of change in America towards integration and opportunity for Blacks.
Back in the 1960s I read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Griffin darkened his skin to travel around the South, and the general feeling from his conversations was that, once segregation ended and voting was allowed, opportunities for Blacks would be realised. President Lyndon Johnson certainly felt that – his thought at the time was that the one thing he could do to contribute to the end of segregation was to give Blacks the vote. LBJ invested considerable capital in passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, losing the South to the Republicans in the process.
There is a direct link from that decision to the election of Barack Obama as president. Blacks were able to exercise their right to vote and, through that enfranchisement, began to exercise power and influence outcomes. Sadly, I was told by many Blacks that current efforts to suppress their vote have led to disillusionment with the ‘system’. This has, among other reasons, contributed to Blacks not exercising their right to vote. The irony is stark.
Progress has, therefore, been limited. Blacks have certainly entered the middle class and the professions, but the roots of segregation go deep. The election of Donald Trump as president gave legitimacy to overt expressions by some of their deeply held beliefs about segregation and the place of Blacks in society. What we honour and call things is what we respect. I saw many statues across the South honouring the insurrectionist leaders and the ‘lost cause’ they led. I drove along Jefferson Davis Rd and Robert E Lee Blvd on my way to Stone Mountain. There is still a veneration of Confederate leaders across the South and beyond.
My ancestors were from Virginia and fought in Confederate armies. I walked in their footsteps on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Antietam, Chickamauga, and Shiloh. While I honour their service, I abhor the cause for which they fought. I heard people tell me that the Civil War was about states rights – yes, but states rights to continue to enslave people. There is a reluctance, particularly across the South, to fully acknowledge what the Civil War was about – until it’s accepted that the South fought for the perpetuation of slavery, the likes of Lee and Davis will be honoured and respected in place of fully accepting Blacks into society.
Accepting Blacks as equal in America means redressing some of the imbalance. The Voting Rights Act was a major step in this direction, but the Supreme Court subsequently emasculated its enforcement – job now done in its view, so no need to continue to have oversight in the South. Voter suppression also extends beyond the South to Republican-controlled areas across the US, where the view is to suppress rather than engage Black voters. The Court will also most likely end affirmative action – job done there too.
There is also a reluctance to discuss these issues in schools. I heard many people tell me that they object to the teaching of CRT (critical race theory) in schools, but I was given no evidence of this academic discipline being taught in grade or high schools. I don’t understand CRT – and no one could explain it to me – but its exclusion from schools is now a plank in local school board elections. The irony is that, while Americans are rightly keen to discuss and acknowledge the Holocaust that happened afar, there is a reluctance to discuss slavery and Native American genocide that happened on home soil.
America, and the South particularly, is full of contradictions about slavery, civil rights, and Black inclusion. I walked across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, then followed the route of the march to Montgomery to claim the right to vote. At the capitol in Montgomery, the civil rights movement is acknowledged and explained in plaques, museums and memorials, yet the statue of Davis as leader of the insurrection stands proud at the capitol building. The South still respects Confederate leaders and what they stood for, and this, de facto, will, among other things, continue to get in the way of realising King’s dream of an integrated America.
All this came together at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. It’s a beautiful building, a magnet for tourists. And insurrectionists. Watching the rioting on TV in Glasgow, my first thought was, what if those folk had been Black? There would have been carnage. As it was, white people stormed the capital and, had it not been for a Black Capital Police officer, Eugene Goodman, the Senators themselves would have been directly threatened. Fox News called this fake news. The arc of the moral universe is going to be very long indeed.