Keeping Up with the Obamas
Dr. Walter Greason
18 October 2012
Every city has its “negro” sections. Racial segregation in North America predates the formation of the United States. The idea of separating people who look different through municipal (or national) policy is centuries old. In Philadelphia, the Moyamensing and Southwark neighborhoods stand among the earliest African American communities in the world. Wherever slavery took root — New Amsterdam, Jamaica, Cape Town, or Gujarat — maroon communities formed in the vicinity. They were physical manifestations of the human determination for freedom, long before the Declaration of Independence was written.
Between 1789 and 1896, African Americans who gained their freedom constantly sought ways to preserve that status for their descendants. Through manumission, gradual emancipation, abolitionism, and ultimately Constitutional amendments, African heritage no longer marked people as private property. In the northern states, this process of freedom offered no promise of equality. When the Plessy v. Ferguson decision established separate facilities as the national standard for equality, its fictive premise relied on the assertion that people of African descent could never be full citizens.
For fifty years, African Americans fled the southern states, seeking whatever opportunities they could find to escape the social and economic boundaries of Jim Crow. Wherever they went, lynchings and race riots followed – a campaign of terror too often overlooked today. Only constant legal challenges and electoral activism laid the foundation for the southern Civil Rights Movement between 1954 and 1968. The effort to desegregate gave birth to a vision of an integrated United States with justice for all.
This vision has yet to be realized. Desegregation itself was denied, frustrated, and crippled by the Massive Resistance Movement of the White Citizens’ Councils and Ku Klux Klan nationwide. Only the smallest degree of compromise with the civil rights agenda was evident in the 1994 Contract with America. The rhetoric of states’ rights continues to frustrate the pursuit of an inclusive society, just as it had defended slavery one hundred and fifty years earlier.
Integration — the possibility of equal opportunity — had its greatest chance for success in the ways the federal government desegregated the military and opened voting and educational opportunities throughout the southern states. Yet these measures often yielded to massive violence in northern cities like Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The suburbs surrounding these cities hardly ever considered public policies to pursue equality. No, their constituents had little interest in an integrated nation in the second half of the twentieth century.
The only tools that began to achieve greater opportunity for all Americans over the last twenty years were the federal, state, and private policies of Affirmative Action. These efforts were the only organized efforts to assure the best candidates from all backgrounds would receive fair consideration of their qualifications. In a world where the integration of black baseball teams after 1948 meant massive layoffs for most players, coaches, ushers, and vendors, where the inclusion of black professionals meant the destruction of nearly every black-owned bank, realty firm, newspaper, radio station, and insurance company, Affirmative Action created the first integrated, (lower) middle class in the nation’s history. Today, the Supreme Court stands poised to destroy this policy and return to the days when a light complexion was the most effective factor in determining a person’s success in life.
On the brink of the 2012 elections, the nation faces a clear choice between returning to the inequality of states’ rights and segregation or moving forward into an unprecedented period of stable economic growth and an inclusive society. President Barack Obama as well as hundreds of senators and representatives stand ready to defend an America united in pursuit of justice, equality, and opportunity for all people. On November 6, we will find out how many people will stand up with them.
Dr. Walter Greason is a Visiting Professor of History at Monmouth University. You can follow him on Twitter (@worldprofessor1).