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Fifty Years Later, Segregation Lives

I have drawn a lot of comfort and inspiration recently from reading Andrew Lewis’ book, The Shadows of Youth, about the young activists who were the backbone of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been a delight to read about how women and men in their early twenties – like Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, and John Lewis – had the courage to stand up against cruelty and injustice, and in the process helped to shape the character of the United States for decades to come.

Despite the gap in generation and historical context, the lives of these daring civil rights activists provide perspective on my involvement with the Occupy movement. I am intrigued about the many similarities that present themselves: the tension between reform and revolution; clashes between the old, pragmatic establishment and the young, idealistic activists; the friendships that hold the movement together; and the personality conflicts that break it apart. There is so much wisdom to be gained from the hard-earned lessons of those who have come before.

Reading about the civil rights movement is affecting me many ways. In addition to giving me insight about the nature of grassroots activism in general, it helps to sensitize me to the dynamics of race and class in the United States. Some of the stories told in The Shadows of Youth are so extreme as to be almost unbelievable. A prime example would be how the Freedom Riders of 1961 were met by violent mobs of white citizens who, with the cooperation of local police, beat these college-aged activists with baseball bats, chains and whips. White America was stridently committed to the perpetuation of Jim Crow, and it required great courage by black activists and white allies to be willing to take the insults, beatings, torture and murder that awaited them.

The sheer moral power of this guiltless suffering, captured by reporters and broadcast to the nation, had a huge impact on the culture. By the end of the 1960s, de jure segregation was no more, and though the pace of progress was slow, African-Americans were increasingly finding their voice in public discourse and governance. There was real reason for optimism.

Yet, as I read about these remarkable historical struggles that changed the face of our nation, I cannot help but notice how far we still fall short of the dream of racial equality and economic justice in this country. Despite the fact that segregation is no longer legally enforced, Washington, DC is deeply divided along racial and class lines. Of course, the strong links between race and economic class only increase the dynamic of de facto segregation.

I live in Deanwood, a neighborhood in DC that lies to the east of the Anacostia river. Those who are familiar with DC will know that white folks do not generally venture into this part of the city, known as East of the River. Many here are afraid to even visit my neighborhood, much less live here. On the other hand, since very few of the city’s cafes, supermarkets and shops are located East of the River, we frequently leave our part of town to buy groceries, or meet up with friends.

It is a strange sensation to people-watch as I commute from Deanwood to Capitol Hill. As I start out from my home, I am surrounded by my African-American neighbors. Kids returning from school. The man hawking newspapers at Benning Road and East Capitol Street. When I cross the river, the picture changes dramatically. Immediately, there are large numbers of well-dressed professionals and middle class white people. By the time I reach historic Capitol Hill, all I see are white folks jogging, walking their dogs and strolling with their babies. I am in another city entirely.

I cannot help but wonder: is this what Lewis, Nash, Carmichael and other civil rights activists thought they were putting their lives on the line for? De facto segregation in the nation’s capital? A city divided by enormous gaps in wealth and privilege, where most of its black residents are consigned to one isolated quarter of the District? Seeing the dynamics at work in my town, I am reminded that the long struggle for racial equality and economic justice is far from over. I wonder how I, as a white man involved in the Occupy movement, can humbly make space for a next step in the liberation of those who are marginalized in our culture and economy. How can I stay aware of the injustice that continues to hold sway in our society? How can I change my own ways of thinking and living in the world, to live into the dream of true peace and reconciliation?

  • Furthermore, many of the areas that were predominantly black and had modestly priced housing in the old days now are predominantly white and upscale, forcing those of modest or less incomes out. I remember living on Capital Hill in such predominantly black and decidedly not upscale neighborhoods.

  • Racism is alive and well in the USA. Within our Religious Society of Friends it is not very sick. Why would you think Segregation would die? Who controls this system? Read the April 4, 1967 speech by King. It is what the Poor People’s Campaign was all about, in 1968.. Read “What the Black Man Wants” by Frederick Douglass, delivered in 1865. And let us not compare occupy to the Civil Rights Movement What has Occupy really done?????

    Greg Williams

  • Greg Williams is so right. Racism is alive and well, not only in Washington DC, but all over the US, and definately within the Religious Society of so-called Friends. There is an entrenched indifference to addressing issues of race among Friends, who would much rather deal with discussing gender, gay, lesbian and transgender issues than talk about their racism.

    I am always amazed at the number of Friends who try to “educate” me, by saying that “race is an illusion, it’s not a scientifically viable idea.” Well, race may not be “real,” but racism sure is. Boarders aren’t real either, yet we still fight over them. And, nation states are imaginary, too.

  • Thanks Star, I appreciate your response. I don’t expect many more because Quakers, have a hard time dealing with concerns around Race. (Not writing about everyone) But most Friends Don’t, Can’t, Won’t, are afraid are ashamed to face RACISM… and will never overcome! It leaves me on a “Back Bench” Because it means most Quakers, White Quakers (let me be clear) can’t deal with me in Truth! and that is painful for this Black Quaker. But I am notlooking for sympathy.
    Greg Williams

  • It is never comfortable to look into our own lives to see what seeds there are of war. Which is why we are encouraged, in Advices and Queries, to make that inspection. Here in Australia our racism has been responsible for the destruction of peoples, cultures, languages… but we sweep it under the edge of the rug, like a fluffball we cannot be bothered to pick up.

  • Racism is so destructive …. I can look back now and see things I did not see or fully understand. Racism is a really really deep deep deep deep deep trench. Racism is torture, and lynching, and prisons filled to the brim with msny who are convicted victims. Maybe guilty as charged… but often given no chance to get elsewhere. People set up from the beginning, by those taking in Racist Pleasure….. And Peri I thank you for saying NO! to the sweeping of it under. Greg Williams

  • F. Chapman

    Alas, bigotry, hate and the side effects of lives lived in fear has been rampant all my life. I think that we must come to understand that the seed of this lie within us all. We cannot give our cloak to the homeless and hate and fear the “suits”. Sowing seeds of Christ’s love to both is the only hope and we must remember that this is Christ’s work and war and we are only the workers in the vineyard. I am glad for thy observations, Micah and other F/friends. Until we can shed our self centeredness, I see little hope for real strides toward the goal of Paul’s when he wrote: “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” We still often remember the name of Paul more than Jesus Christ.