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Welcome to After the Dream, which examines the social, economic, and political implications of events in America’s South following the civil rights movement of the mid 1960s, and the ongoing struggle for black equality.
In part two, Professor Timothy Minchin and Professor Emeritus John Salmond will discuss the civil rights movement. We will start with Professor Minchin.
- Professor Timothy Minchin:
The civil rights movement was built on the struggles of generations of black men and women and some white supporters as well, going back decades. The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S. was set up in 1909. So it is over a century old and they began a lot of the struggles, particularly the struggle for voting rights and the struggle to overcome segregation in public accommodation but also the struggle against employment discrimination was also an important area to them particularly school and the struggle against segregated school and that was also always of central importance to the NAACP.
- Professor John Salmond
Over quite some time, the civil rights movement for many people kind of meant what happened between, say, The Brown decision of 1954 and the passage of these acts that kind of got telescoped into about 10 years and became synonymous really with the name of Martin King, that really is not the story. The struggle is much, much longer and older than that in the south and involves myriad numbers of local people. It was not always or even primarily a national struggle. It is almost impossible to date exactly when you could say the civil rights movement started. Some would say really dated from the emancipation proclamation.
What can be said is that in the years immediately after the civil war in the American south, when the south was under military rule, African-Americans, the newly freed slaves, enjoyed a high degree of civil rights in terms of their ability to vote, to use public accommodation, and to go to school. This got closed off once southern whites retained or regained power in the south and began to implement a system of segregation and indeed a caste system that really was quite foreign to the south certainly before the civil war. It made no sense to separate yourself from black southerners, in fact, you could not do so.
From about 1890 on, you have the systematic and illegal imposition of a caste system on the south and the denial to black southerners of the equality before the law that the amendments to the constitution after the civil war seemed to promise them.
So you can make a case for saying that a long civil rights movement begins about the turn of the 20th Century. It should always be said that the life of black people in the American south say before the 1960s was variegated and the impact or the reality of segregation impacted on some much more than others where African-Americans lived the most circumscribed life of all were in the rural areas of the southern states.
I lived in the state of North Carolina and the town I lived in was a town that had grafted on to it as it were a large university but essentially, it was, at the time I went there at tobacco town, the chief industry was tobacco, large percentage of the people in the town were employed in the tobacco industry.
And of course blacks were not able to have skilled jobs, semi-skilled jobs in the tobacco industry. Their employment was confined to the heavy lifting that was done usually outside the factories. The other main industry in the town was textiles where similarly, the work was done by whites. The few blacks work in the textile mills by and large were confined to the lifting jobs. They are very low-paid jobs.
The university I went to was segregated. It actually integrated during the time that I was there but this university at that time that I went there in 1961 had no black students and there was a fierce debate that rise all the time I was there about the integration. Those blacks who once saw on the campus were again those who held janitorial positions or who cleaned the rooms, the maids and the janitors.
The school system was completely segregated. None of the public schools had been integrated at the time that I went there. That occurred actually somewhat later in 1970 when I was back in that town.
After seven years the public school systems were finally integrated under court order as a result of the legislation and that was quite a dramatic process.
So even though this was a university city and a town that would be considered moderate in terms of its race relations, and a town that had a small but quite prosperous black middle class, black life was still circumscribed. Blacks by and large were not able to vote. They could not use any of the public accommodations in the town. They could not use the library. They could not use the municipal swimming pools. Their lives were very, very much circumscribed by the caste system that had been imposed in the late 19th Century.
But it was somewhat gentler, if you like, operated rather more gently than the system operated in rural areas. That of course when the system was challenged as it was during my time there in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement came to town as it were, when there were demonstrations, when there were challenges to the power structure, one could see that the gentler power structure was pretty soon stripped away and that was some pretty heavy incidence during the period that I was there.
The thing that changed first and almost overnight was public accommodations. Once the law was passed the signs came down in the restaurants. The people could check-in to the motels. Not many did of course because they did not have the money to pay for the rooms. Though there was resistance of a sort, it was usually resistance in the terms of surly looks and -- but, you know, the life of a black person in the American south in the 1960s was one circumscribed by a caste system which of course was one of the reasons why many black southerners throughout the century left for the north.
You know, there is a wonderful book that I have just read by a woman called, Isabel Wilkerson, called "The Warmth of Other Sons" which traces the migration of southern blacks to the northern cities throughout the 20th Century. There they did not enjoy equality in any manner of means and not yet, but at least they enjoyed a degree of freedom that by and large they could not have even in the more moderate cities and living spaces of the American south. From about the late '70s blacks started to return home. Blacks started to move back to the south and have continued to do so.
And one of the reasons is of course the smashing of the segregation system. It was very hard to gauge that the level of interracial contacted the private level. You just cannot do that. And my overwhelming sense is that white and black southerners by and large still lives separate private lives. I would have thought King's adage that the most segregated hour in the week was 11o'clock on Sunday morning when blacks and whites went to the separate churches still holds true, but it is much, much more than that.
On the other hand, you see blacks and whites typically workings, mingling together, and going into McDonald's and having their lunches together, and so on, and there is an enormous amount of connection in the workplace, there has to be and there generally is, but at the private level, one really does not know.
Various things indicate that barriers are breaking down the right of intermarriage, for example, is accelerating, is a surprising amount really in the south considering what a taboo they used to be on interracial connection, that level but it is still, it is minority. And of course, white people, by and large, vote Republican, black people vote Democratic. It is interesting and it is kind of telling that in 2008, Barack Obama, in his winning bid for the presidency in the south got about half the number of white votes as far as can be gauged that John Kerry had got in his losing bid in 2004.
So at the political level, there had been some quite remarkable things and that the south is very -- had to generalize about politically and a large, large number and a growing number adhere pretty firmly to the Republican Party.
And part of the reason for that is, I think, racial, by no means all, the souths are very, very conservative area of the nation. And there is also the reason very complicated factor of Hispanic political participation which of course just did not exist in the 1960s and was not something that Martin King or either his people thought about but is now a real reality in southern towns particularly the smaller towns where many of the public announcements, for example, have to be made in Spanish as well as in English because of the huge influx over the last 20 years of Hispanics.
It is a changing situation and in many ways the south does reflect the enormous change in American demography, generally, as it becomes more and more a none-white, if you want to categorize it, nation. One example, a rural Georgia county where the prom in the local high school, the end-of-year dances are still segregated.
One night there is a prom for the white students, one night for the black students and this is not necessarily because the students wanted so, it is because the parents insist on it. And again of their all sorts of reasons that have to deal with cultural preferences and music and so on, but essentially, it is racial. So you could say, in certain areas, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And that was Professor John Salmond. The book they co-authored is called ‘After the Dream: Black and White Southerners since 1965’. It is published by the University of Kentucky Press and is available from all good book stores. Listen in next week , when Tim and John will discuss the civil rights movement in more days so. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org