South Carolina, where the Civil War began, may have signaled, in the wake of the deplorable church shootings there, how the country can emerge from a distinctly unhealthy period of polarization.
Cable-news talking heads attempted to inflame the dialogue. A New York Times front-page story tried to tie Republican political candidates to a segregationist fringe group praised by the Charleston shooter.
The families of the victims, however, offered forgiveness. The state's governor and bipartisan leaders proposed that the Confederate-derived flag be removed from the front of the state Capital building. Other states and several private entities have quickly followed suit. The wisdom and common sense of the local people overcame the attempted politicization of the tragedy by those elsewhere. The locals recognized, as others should have, that the killer was a deranged loner who did not represent larger racism in our society. (Hate crimes against African Americans have, in fact, diminished steadily over many years).
American heroes risked all to end slavery, strike down Jim Crow, and pass landmark legislation making racial and other discrimination illegal. The heroes were a remarkable group of American political, business, labor, academic and religious leaders of all races and ethnicities. They went on to sponsor and create programs to help African Americans, in particular, lift their chances in life through education, health, job and skills training initiatives. Black leaders could not have done it alone. White leaders did not do it to make themselves feel morally superior. All did it in the cause of simple justice.
The struggle for civil rights was the animating issue of my own political generation.
In our pre-television growing-up years, it was a struggle we in the Puget Sound area saw as taking place at a distance. Yet even in the relatively tolerant Pacific Northwest, we would learn, Ku Klux Klan chapters existed and there were incidents of raw racism. Not only African American but Asian and Native American citizens had been treated unjustly over a long period.
I came fully awake to the issue, just before my 14th birthday, while listening to radio accounts of the 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Democrats, until then, had been an uneasy populist coalition of northern liberals and southern segregationists. The Southerners were particularly important because they dominated congressional committee chairmanships. Analysts referred to the Solid South -- the solidly Democratic South---because they knew that Dixie had voted reliably for Democratic national and state candidates since the end of the Civil War. Vote for the party of Lincoln? Never.
President Harry Truman, a decided underdog in the 1948 presidential election, thought it imperative that those Dixie votes be cast for him, even though he had desegregated the armed forces after World War II. He favored a civil-rights plank acceptable to southern delegations. But Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey introduced a minority plank (that is, favored by a minority of the platform committee) which outspokenly called for immediate and sweeping civil-rights measures. To the surprise of media (and even the delegates themselves), Humphrey's fiery floor speech brought the auditorium to a cheering frenzy and his minority plank to passage. Southern delegations walked out of the hall. An alternative Dixiecrat ticket, led by South Carolinian Strom Thurmond, formed for the fall election.
Truman, it was thought, was a goner. But the energy generated by the party's new, uncompromising civil-rights stance mobilized voters and brought Truman a surprise victory. The Democratic Party, after that, never turned back and became the unmistakable party of civil rights.
I got my first personal look at Dixie in the mid-1950s while a Columbia University graduate student. I traveled to South Carolina over spring break with a classmate who showed me around his hometown. I should have been prepared for what I saw but was not. Black neighborhoods consisted of rundown houses and shacks. Schools and restaurants were segregated. Restrooms and even drinking fountains were labeled “White” and “Negro.” Even the waiting room at the railroad station was segregated. It had been one thing to know of these things at a distance, another to see them firsthand. I returned to New York sick at heart.
As chance had it, I found myself working in 1964 for my childhood hero, Humphrey, who then was Senate Majority Whip and the prime sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Humphrey, President Lyndon Johnson, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Senator Minority Leader Everett Dirksen and a remarkable bipartisan coalition overcame a Senate Democratic filibuster -- it took 67 rather than 60 votes then to break a filibuster -- and pass the Civil Rights Act. They were backed by a broad group of private-sector leaders, as noted above, who had labored over two decades to get it done. Washington Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry “Scoop” Jackson were early and avid advocates.
The Johnson-Humphrey and Democratic national landslide victory that fall created a congressional majority that could pass almost any Democratic White House proposal. But, heeding the lesson of the 1964 Civil Rights Act passage, support was sought from congressional Republicans and a broad private-sector coalition on behalf of Medicare, Medicaid, a war on poverty, federal education legislation and, centrally, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson wanted consensus support for the legislation because he wanted it to last in later years when White House and congressional control were in other hands.
Contrary to the account given in the recent film Selma, black leaders did not have to pressure LBJ to introduce and pass the Voting Rights Act. At his first meeting with legislative leaders in 1965, which I attended, he gave the Voting Rights Act high priority. Johnson said at the time, rightly, that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts probably would hurt Democrats in Dixie over several decades. But the Voting Rights Act had a practical and immediate effect in Dixie. Not only did it help elect black candidates in districts with heavy black populations. Even Thurmond and, eventually, Alabama Gov. George Wallace hired black staff members and campaigned for African-American votes.
Embedded racism does not yield easily and not just to laws and government programs.
In the 1970s I periodically went to the Old South, helping black candidate Charles Evers in his Mississippi gubernatorial campaign and representing in Washington, D.C. the Southern Elections Fund, headed by Julian Bond, later head of the NAACP, as it raised money for local-level black candidates in Southern states. On one occasion I attended an NAACP chapter meeting in north Florida during which a black teacher told me she had been dismissed from her job because it was discovered she belonged to the United Nations Association! Over the next 20 years, I continued to periodically visit the Old South, which was in the process of becoming the New South.
Year by year, political alignments and attitudes continued to shift. Diehard segregationists were becoming objects of embarrassment and derision. Black and liberal candidates were being elected at state and local level to important offices — even in strong white-majority constituencies. Black families who had moved north after World War II began to return to their South. African Americans led cities, corporations, universities and civic-leadership groups, just as they were assuming leadership, including the presidency of the United States, at the national level.
There were Civil War battle re-enactors, and those who still displayed Confederate flags, but only a small minority were racist. They were moved, instead, by feelings of patriotic loyalty and nostalgia, by loss of forebears in the war, by populist anti-majoritarian impulses, or by the same need which causes people to join a lodge, fundamentalist church or a club. Not people of wisdom but not necessarily people of evil. Others associated the Confederate flag with NASCAR or southern rock.
While overall progress clearly was taking place, the great disappointment for the civil rights/Great Society generation was the fate of so many black families, especially in northern and southern big cities, after the earlier high hopes. What does it benefit if a city has a black mayor, police chief, city council president and prosecuting attorney if, in the same city, black neighborhoods are plagued by drug dealing and drug use, high black-on-black murder and violent crime rates, one-parent families, calamitous incarceration and school-dropout rates, and a culture of low expectations.
How to reverse this? The only way, it would seem, is to form strong consensus, as we did in the 1960s, behind efforts to lift black kids and families through education, jobs and skills training, nutrition, health and other initiatives which will provide them with capabilities and motivation to lift themselves. Where is support for those initiatives today?
Energy, instead, is being devoted to deadend denunciations and blame-placing by TV talking heads, who know they'll get exposure and attention to the degree they are over the top. A sick political correctness attaches to statements denouncing police, the "white establishment," or alleged racism as if American society were still that of the 1930s or even 1950s. The most quoted and visible black spokespersons are not a Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King or even Rep. John Lewis, an authentic hero of Selma, but instead self-seeking and self-enriching hustlers such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who are first on TV producers' call lists because they have name-identification and can be counted on to make polarizing statements.
Some have suggested that America "apologize" for past racism. We did that a long time ago with concrete laws and deeds. Now we need to get back to tangible public and private programs — and a societal consensus behind them — to attack the core problems plaguing black Americans, as well as other disadvantaged Americans, today. That means devising policies for economic growth and job creation as well as targeted efforts to get everyone into the labor force in such an economy. It also means that political leaders, of all outlooks, must stop using race as a wedge issue to alarm and energize constituencies within their parties.
My own opinion: I'd have done away with Confederate and quasi-Confederate flags and official symbols, anywhere, long ago. But I also realize that those who disagree are not necessarily whip-cracking plantation overseers riding their horses to the next lynching.
We'll get through this together or not at all. Wise citizens of Charleston have set us an example.