I have always been fascinated by history. Civil rights history, I believe, in particular, provides us with teaching moments we can apply to today’s struggles. I recently visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, formerly the Loraine Hot
I have always been fascinated by history. Civil rights history, I believe, in particular, provides us with teaching moments we can apply to today’s struggles. I recently visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, formerly the Loraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I saw and read things there that made me think about my forefathers’ experiences in the Jim Crow South. In 1962, my grandfather, whose own father was born a slave, was denied the right to vote in Mississippi, because he was told he had to recite the Bill of Rights to the Constitution from memory.
Back then, the systematic denial of rights of citizenship for African Americans came cloaked in many forms, but was as obvious as the nose on your face. The same is true today, but some of us are missing it. History can be painful and it is natural for people to want to put it behind them. But when we turn a blind eye to our past, we put our future progress at risk.
In fact, we could even slide backwards.
It’s happening right now. Hard-won civil rights battles, such as the right to vote and the right to a quality public education, are coming under fresh attacks. While not at the level of Jim Crow, when informed by history, they give off the familiar stench of inequality.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was to have ensured African Americans equal access to the polls and that trickery such as my grandfather encountered would never happen again. Yet, today, across America, there are an increasing number of laws being passed that limit how and when people can be registered to vote, the kinds of identification that will be accepted and the times and places when people can vote. Florida eliminated voting on Sunday, a popular time among senior citizens. Other proposals seek to ban college IDs, nursing home residence badges and Medicare cards as accepted forms of identification. Informed by history, you might question laws that try to make it harder for people to vote rather than enhance, encourage and create opportunities to ensure that right.
The landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision outlawed legalized segregation. Today, parents who enroll their children in better-performing schools outside their districts are being brought up on criminal charges. You may have heard about a new crime called “educational theft.” In one well publicized case in Ohio, a mother was convicted on felony charges and served time in jail for enrolling her child in a better school outside her district, rather than the under-performing school nearest her home. In another case, a homeless woman was arrested and charged with a crime for enrolling her son in a school that was not near the homeless shelter where they lived. Both women are African American.
In what world can you become a convicted felon for trying to get a better education for your children? The policies that have sustained separate and unequal schools long after the Supreme Court struck them down in 1957 are, of course, the real crime.
They might not look the same as the legalized segregation of the past, with state troopers blocking access to school doors.
But informed by history, you might view these laws as steps backward.
History has been on my mind a lot lately as the Chicago Urban League turns 95 years old next month. Some people think that means the organization is ‘old’ and has outlived its usefulness. Thank goodness that is not true. The promises of the Civil Rights Movement have not been fully realized. Whether you believe that progress for African Americans has slowed or slipped, it is clear that the Chicago Urban League’s work to ensure African Americans have equal access to opportunity is as important now as it was in 1916.
History whispers clues to us that guides our steps as we move toward a future where our schools are pipelines to empowerment, not prison; where Black business owners can participate fully in government and private sector investments; where the right to vote is truly unencumbered; and where Black boys graduating from high school and college is expected, not exceptional. At the Chicago Urban League, our history is our strength. That’s true for all of us.
Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.