Editor’s note: Steven A. Holmes covered race for eight years at The New York Times and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper’s 2000 “How Race is Lived in America” series. He is now executive director in CNN’s Office of Standards and Practices.
(CNN) — So we’ve gone from Martin to Martin. The five decades from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” to Trayvon Martin’s death have been the most tumultuous in the country’s racial history since the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Blacks have seen progress and regression; triumphs and disappointments; great leaps forward and today’s racial stalemate. Charismatic leaders have flashed across the scene and burned out quickly. Others have lasted as spokesmen for African-Americans for decades — too long in the eyes of some people, black and white alike.
New movements such as those fighting for the rights of Latinos, women and gays have become valuable allies while, at the same time, diverting money and attention from the cause of African-Americans.
Courts and government policies have at times boosted black progress and at other points been a millstone around their necks. Black leaders have been brilliant tacticians and have made costly mistakes.
The 50 years since the March on Washington have produced a number of “signposts”: events and trends that have shaped the civil rights struggle and today’s racial landscape. Ten stand out as having the most impact over time on the well-being of blacks and whites and on their underlying attitudes toward each other. Some of the signposts are very familiar; some are more obscure. Some propelled the nation toward racial harmony; some became significant roadblocks. Many have changed American society in ways that extend beyond race. All changed the arc of racial history.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act
These two landmark pieces of legislation in effect brought an end to legalized segregation. Though the Supreme Court had said the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in education more than a decade earlier, it wasn’t until the passage of these two laws that legalized Jim Crow was outlawed in virtually all aspects of American society. There have been arguments about how strongly the laws have been enforced. But, the main impact was to put the power of the federal government, particularly the federal courts, on the side of African-Americans — and others, including whites — who have felt the lash of discrimination.
The law enacted to protect African-Americans has had an impact far beyond race. At the last minute, Southern conservatives added language to have the act cover bias based on gender, figuring that would kill the bill. It stayed in and later would become the basis, not only fighting discrimination against women in hiring and promotion, but also combating sexual harassment in the workplace.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act
Often lumped together with the other civil rights measures of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act deserves special mention because of how much it fundamentally reshaped the American political environment. Freed of the restraints imposed on them in the South, African-Americans flocked to the polls over the years electing black officials and producing radical changes in both Democratic and Republican parties. In 1970, five years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, there were 1,470 black elected officials throughout the country. Today there are more than 10,000.
But the impact did not stop there. Black voters became a force to be catered to within the Democratic Party. Since 1976, only one candidate — Michael Dukakis in 1988, mainly because his main rival, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, siphoned off African-American support — has secured the Democratic presidential nomination without winning the majority of black votes in the primaries.
On the Republican side, the Voting Rights Act began a migration of conservative Southern whites from the Democratic Party to the GOP, where they pushed Republicans further to the right not only on racial issues, but also with regard to crime, national security, taxes, government spending, abortion and gay rights. The Voting Rights Act, says David Bositis, a senior analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that specializes in racial issues, “brought fundamentalist Protestants into the Republican Party and gave the party a Southern flavor that persists to this day.”
Inner-city riots and the rise of Black Power
Starting with unrest in New York City’s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, American cities suffered through five consecutive summers of major unrest in its inner cities. The riots — or urban rebellions, depending on your political philosophy — in places such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit shook white America and hastened white flight from the cities and into the suburbs. Detroit went from being 28% black seven years before its devastating 1967 riot to 43% black three years afterward. By 2000 it was 81% black. Fear of similar disturbances contributed to similar white exodus in places like St. Louis and Gary, Indiana.
As whites fled, businesses and jobs went with them. While fear of further disturbances prompted federal, state and local governments to pour cash into programs to revitalize the inner cities, government aid could not make up for the flight of businesses and the lack of new private investment. Left behind was a ravaged urban landscape of concentrated poverty, poor schools, violence and deteriorating family structure that has devastated the black community and negatively affected white attitudes toward African-Americans.
The riots’ most significant legacy, however, was the shift in black ideology. The disturbances accelerated an already growing impatience with the slow pace of progress and a belief that efforts toward integration were a fool’s errand. What emerged was a new and strident philosophy of separation from whites — either physical or psychological. Blacks demanded their own leadership; their own institutions, their own organizations, even their own holidays such as Kwanzaa.
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