Fifty Years Later

I’ve been mulling over the fifty-year anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech.

Unlike many–actually, most–of those providing commentary around this milestone, I didn’t read about the event in class or see television reports after the fact. I was twenty-one when the March occurred–the coverage I saw was contemporaneous, and a great deal of it was far from positive.

In Indiana, as elsewhere, a significant percentage of the population considered King an “agitator.” Even among people who genuinely wanted a more equal society, there were concerns that King’s approach was too “in your face,” and would end up making things even worse. Needless to say, there were plenty of people who were not just unconcerned with racial justice,  but who strongly believed that black people were inferior and needed to be kept “in their place,” and were outraged not just by the March on Washington, but by the entire civil rights movement.

So–fifty years later, where are we?

Are things better than they were when I was young? Absolutely. Are they where one might hope after fifty years? Not even close. Considerable racial animus persists, although its expression has (thankfully) changed.

Ironically, it was the election of an African-American President that brought long-buried racial resentments out from under the rocks that had obscured them. Perhaps progress is always like this: two steps forward, one back. Advance, then blowback. But Obama’s election unleashed a bitter undercurrent that surprised and disheartened many of us. The “birther” accusations, the racist emails, the hysterical opposition to everything the President does or says, the characterization of America’s Commander-in-Chief as a Muslim, a socialist, a Nazi….as “other.” I suppose it is a measure of progress that even the haters feel the need for euphemisms, and use these labels rather than the “n” word they so clearly mean.

I suppose it’s progress that they shrink from acknowledging even to themselves that their blind hatred is motivated by race.

Fifty years ago, in the midst of the social upheaval that we now simply call “the Sixties,” it would have been impossible to predict where social forces were taking the country. Despite the wrenching changes and excesses–and the enormous and often disproportionate reaction to those excesses–I would argue that the country emerged a fairer and more equal place. I  hope we can say the same thing about our current divisions fifty years from now.

Martin Luther King was certainly right about one thing: the arc of history does bend slowly.


  1. Sheila; I have been waiting to see the response you receive from this blog, expecting at least the accusation of trying to deny everything anti-Obama to be racist inspired. Having been friends of blacks before the civil rights movement began, I lost “friends” in those years. That hasn’t changed in this 21st Century. In 1955 I lived in Fredericksburg, VA; even with the racism in Indianapolis I was not ready for the south. My favorite seat at movies has always been in the balcony; I was not allowed to sit there because I was white. I lived in Florida from 1994 to 2001 and couldn’t believe how segregated it is there.

    Things have changed but situations will never be equal due to racist family values being handed down generation to generation. I am proud to have been the Black Sheep of my family but it did little actual good to improve matters. Now; we must fight on more fronts, including the Supreme Court, to reinstate voting rights for all. Their ruling may be the most damaging action they have taken in many years because it affects a much larger and greater mix of American citizens. I saw another reference regarding President Obama’s personal remembrances from his youth, comparing them to the Trayvon Martin situation. Past presidents and other elected officials have compared events in their lives to major news events with no negative reaction. Things have changed on many levels but there will always be that division between races because this country’s history is built on racism. Bigots just have more targets these days in the form of Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, etc., and the erroneous grouping of terrorists and extremists with the Muslim religion. All we can do is all we can do trying to improve conditions; it isn’t our individual responsibility to right every wrong but I will not stop doing what little I can do. Each of us who recognize problems in our government MUST pay attention and remember on election day what is the right thing to do.

  2. EXCELLENT post and excellent comment by Ms. Green. As a lifelong Hoosier, I can testify that much indeed has changed for the better. But there is a lot of what I think of as “subconscious racism” where the individual has no clue that the stereotypes they utter are in any way racist, indeed they are profoundly offended when called out on this. There are many Obama-haters in this crowd, tho to be honest, there are some in that group who just hate Democrats.

    It is said the last bastions of racism are the bedroom and in church. Who among us knows people who say they will not date someone of “another race”? Probably all. I ask if they mean they will not date Martians, and get odd looks. Too few attend religious services with integrated congregations.

  3. Greg; love your Martians comment and I’m sure I have seen the same reaction you got when trying to speak truth to my family and friends. My father was once was rampaging about all of the crimes being committed by “coloreds”; when I responded that this would be a terrible world if white foks started raping, molesting, murdering, robbing and assaulting – I’m sure I saw that same look. Then he walked off with no respons; my youngest brother was a semi-career criminal and spent much of his life in jails and prisons. I say semi-career because when he had a job brick laying or caddying he let his friends “work” without him. My cousin claimed not to be racist becaue they have a biracial great-grandson they “love to death”. She went on to tell me that his father didn’t pay child support but, “that is the way they are.” She denied this was a racist comment and didn’t want to hear about the white men who do not pay child support. If you ask any of these people if they have been in the homes of blacks they claim to be friends, or invited them into their home – the answer is always no, because they have different social lives. Racism and bigotry is alive and flourishing in this country but the Supreme Court ruling regarding the Voting Rights Act is hitting all races and they can’t see it.

  4. The most important thing I got out of the MLK 50th Anniversary is that the republicans and GOP that were invited to the event didn’t make the time to prove that they weren’t racists by actually attending it. Shame on them. We know the truth and their absence sends a powerful message to us all. The GOP is a party of racists and are now unable to hide from the fact with this lack of attendance proved it.

Comments are closed.