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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?