Let’s Remember Why Things Aren’t As Bad As They Could Have Been Without John Lewis and C.T. Vivian
There may be no better way to honor the life and legacy of the late Congressman John Lewis than to think carefully before saying race relations in the United States are as bad as they have ever been.
That declaration bubbles to the surface periodically, often spiking in response to a tragedy like the murder of George Floyd.
Activists, black and otherwise, employ it to underscore their warning that America has failed to achieve full racial justice, and that without racial justice America will eventually fail.
Elsewhere on the ideological spectrum, Donald Trump declared during his 2016 presidential campaign that “race relations are as bad as they’ve ever been.” His motive there, it probably doesn’t need to be explained, was to discredit his presidential predecessor, Barack Obama.
However diverse its source, the declaration falls on a number of sympathetic ears. In a January poll reported by the Washington Post, two-thirds of black Americans call this “a bad time” to be black in America.
That reflects a real and legitimate frustration that can nevertheless coexist alongside considerable evidence that compared to almost any day in the American past, today is better.
Not great. Far from perfect. Just better.
It does a disservice to John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, a lesser known but no less important minister and civil rights activist who died the same day as Lewis last week, to suggest that their work, and the work of millions of others, produced no progress.
Random fact: In 1940, 60 percent of employed black women in America worked as domestic servants. Today, some 70 percent hold white-collar jobs.
Random fact from a little further back: In 1860, 89 percent of American blacks were slaves.
We’ve got a terrible history of racial discrimination and oppression. There’s no way around it and no quick fix.
But it’s not simply overpraise of the departed to say that John Lewis and C.T. Vivian left America better than they found it.
The movement in which they played critical roles helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which forced public places to let “colored” folks in, and forced Southern states to let millions more black folks finally vote.
More than a half century later, most people don’t remember and can’t imagine a world where a department store or a restaurant or hotel would turn away black patrons. When John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were growing up, it was public policy in a wide swath of America.
The impact of laws on attitudes often is, sadly, slower.
I grew up in the northern suburb of West Hartford, Connecticut. The population was around 60,000, and I remember six black folks: the Darby family, with three kids in my schools; the maid who worked for the mother of my friend Anne Campbell; and Russell Moore, a resonant baritone who was a paid soloist at my family’s Baptist church.
I don’t recall overt antagonism toward black folks, perhaps because it wasn’t necessary. You don’t need sundown laws for six people, two of whom probably didn’t live in town anyway. I do recall an unspoken sense that it was just as well the town was white, because white folks were better at, you know, taking care of a town.
That was, it has become clear over the years, a depressingly widespread attitude 60 years ago.
I don’t get that today from my grandchildren. For them it wouldn’t even be a discussion, and that’s part of the change John Lewis and C.T. Vivian helped bring about.
Yes, too many white Americans still think they’re better, or more entitled. Yes, bad things happen disproportionately to black Americans.
All most of us can do is try to nudge the numbers in the right direction. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian spent their lives slamming into those numbers with a bulldozer.
The same could be said for Julian Bond, another long-time civil rights and human rights activist who died in 2015. Bond and Lewis worked together for much of their lives, with a strained interlude in 1986 when they faced off for the Democratic Congressional nomination in Georgia’s fifth district. The campaign got ragged and bitter, with Lewis accusing Bond of drug use and both warning the other would be ineffective.
In the end, Lewis scored an upset victory, securing the seat he held until his death. Bond retired from elective politics the following year, shifting his focus to civil rights organizations and teaching, notably the history of the modern civil rights movement.
What he told students, he said in a 1997 interview, was that the frustrations of that history should not eclipse its successes.
“We’re still not all the way to the promised land,” Bond said. “But neither should we forget the enormous progress the Movement forged in the ’60s. The world I grew up in is unthinkable today.”