On August 28, 1963 more than 250,000 Americans filled the Washington Mall. There were many speakers, many singers, at the civil rights event. The last speaker was Martin Luther King, Jr., a young and charismatic black minister. His speech entranced the crowd. 50 years ago he gave them abundant hope. But, have things really changed?
The original script of Dr. King’s most famous speech did not contain the dramatic end, he added it. The “I Have a Dream” lines inspired the crowd when he ended it with “Free at last, free at last; thank God we’re free at last.”
Was he overly optimistic? History has proven that 50 years later the changes he worked for have had only partial success.
The civil rights movement was two sided. Freedom for the American Negro to have the same opportunities as white men and women was joined with employment, and fair compensation for that employment. Equality in the workplace was paramount to making the civil rights movement a guarantee for the future security of all men.
In 2013 the United States continues to be ruled by white men, (if professional athletics are eliminated). Successes by African-American men and women stand out because they are not the norm, they continue to be the exception. The average African-American makes less money than his white counterpart. He also has less access to adequate health care. And recently attempts have begun by Republicans to make it more difficult for blacks to vote. Affirmative action is becoming a thing of the past, and educators predict decreases in college enrollment by black men and women in the future.
Groups in the government are attempting to end welfare programs and reduce unemployment compensation. While one entire party is waging a war on women, black women are feeling the effect more deeply because of economic inequity.
Many experts feel that much of what was gained in the 40 years after 1963, was lost in the last 10 years.
The situation is distinctly divided by age groups. Racism is more prevalent in the over 55 group, and far less present in the under 30 group.
The right to equality can be legislated, but the actual practice of fair and equal treatment cannot. Depending on where you live in the United States, racism and bigotry appear in different degrees, and in different ways. Southern states, and states in the west such as Arizona and Nevada, are more open about their desire for separatism. States in the east, Midwest and the west have populations that outwardly express less bigotry, but all too many continue to harbor their feelings of hatred.
My personal experiences placed me in situations where I witnessed all levels of racism, bigotry, and pure hatred for someone who was ‘different.’
In 1964, I enlisted in the United States Air Force. Basic training was in Lackland Air Force Base, just outside of San Antonio, Texas. For the first month, we were not allowed off base. When we were finally issued a pass to go into San Antonio for a day, we were all excited.
I grew up in Los Angeles. One of the Airmen in our barracks had access to a car. The four of us left together, one of our friends was a black gentleman, also from Los Angeles. When we arrived in San Antonio, we did the tourist things; we toured the Alamo, and took in what was then not a very pretty city.
Like most military men, we went to the part of the city that had several bars. The first thing we noticed was that several of the bars had signs posted saying ‘Off Limits to Airmen.’ George, one of our group, said one of the permanent members of the base told him that they had some problems, and the ‘Air Force Police,’ AP’s had restricted some establishments.
We went to a couple of the bars, and never felt welcome. Our black friend, Paul, was stared at wherever we went. We decided to go back to the base. On our way, a car pulled up behind us, maybe 30 or 40 yards back. We heard gunshots. To this day, as my friend sped away, I’m not sure if they were shooting at us, or merely attempting to frighten us.
From Lackland, I went to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi. For my black friends, things were even worse. All establishments off base had signs. Some said “No Niggers.” Those who did allow our black friends access had separate restrooms for whites and blacks.
After my tour in the Air force, I moved to San Diego. It was hard for me to believe I was in the same state. An underlying prejudice was everywhere. Much of San Diego was affluent and very white. I lived there for 10 years, and never felt comfortable.
On a vacation, my ex-wife and our kids took a trip to Reno, Nevada, to visit her friends. I fell in love with the area, a place I knew nothing about, but loved the beauty of the mountains and Lake Tahoe.
A few months after I moved here, I discovered an attitude not dissimilar to Biloxi. I later discovered it was once called the “Mississippi of the West.” I eventually went to work in the casinos. I don’t believe most of them had a single black employee in 1987 when I began my ‘career.’
Changes came, and some attitudes changed over the years. In the 2012 election President Obama actually carried Nevada.
But the ‘old ways’ continue to exist here in Northern Nevada. Southern Nevada is more populous, and has had an influx of many people, and increasing numbers of minorities over the last 15 years.
The answer to my earlier question, ‘has our country changed as Dr. King had hoped?’ Yes and no. It depends on which part of the country in which you live, and who your friends and acquaintances might be.
The problems that exist have been exacerbated by the media, and entertainment, and by members of the black community themselves.
Many of the news networks and publications are quick to show and write stories about black gangs, and black crime. Seldom do they show us the positive efforts by the majority of black families.
Movies and television continue to depict black men and women in the ‘seedier’ side of life. Efforts by some are beginning a change, such as “the Butler,” and other legendary figures. But few leading roles in romantic comedy or serious drama exist for black men and women.
Bill Cosby and Harry Belafonte have challenged the black community to raise themselves out of caricature status. They tell them to ‘speak English, pull their pants up, turn their baseball caps around, and dress professionally when seeking work.’ And they’re not wrong. But young black men and women need role models, and that’s a continuing effort by leaders in the black community, which needs to be supported by the entire community. Unfortunately, the experiences of some forbid hope for change.
Many years ago a friend of mine and I got into this discussion. I told her that time would be the solution to prejudice; new generations would destroy baseless hatred. But now, even with 50 years gone by, Americans have not progressed to the level I had hoped.
Until we cease labeling people as ‘black’ Americans, ‘African-Americans,’ Hispanic Americans, and other, we will not be a country of equals. Someday I hope we’ll all be ‘Americans.’ I have a dream too.