August 28 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin
Luther King’s extraordinary “I have a dream” speech.
The media hype is
not exaggerating: this event really was one of those transformational moments –
marking changes that had been building for decades while propelling them forward
to a whole new level.
In 2013, America has progressed. The “Jim Crow”
South of 1963 was a segregated backwater where blacks had separate, inferior
water fountains and bathrooms, where blacks and whites rarely sat, dined,
learned, prayed or enjoyed entertainment together.
The Supreme Court in
Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 mandated the integration of schools “with
all deliberate speed”; many Southerners emphasized the “deliberate” part and
ignored the “speed.”
Today, although more work remains, Americans have a
black president, 43 black members of Congress, and more than 650 black mayors,
representing over 48 million citizens, while many white Americans have black
friends, colleagues, schoolmates, teachers, doctors, lawyers, dentists, heroes,
and neighbors. My kids, who are sophisticated politically, did not even know the
word used to describe the system separating blacks and whites, “segregation,”
and very few people know that this ugly system was called “Jim Crow” because an
eighteenth-century Kentucky plantation song about a slave dance called “Jim
Crow” was shorthand for blacks in the Old South.
Today, the degree of
integration, the amount of openness, especially on the part of most young
Americans, and the shift in America’s national self-image from a land of whites
to a multicultural, multiracial nation, is stunning. The change proves the magic
of a healthy democracy’s self-corrective mechanisms, including courts, the
legislature, the executive, the press, the education system, and just plain
The Civil Rights Revolution tapped the constructive power of all
these entities, in a process framed by Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 phrase “all men
are created equal,” propelled forward by the Civil War of the 1860s, undermined
by the Jim Crow segregation which developed in the late 19th century, then
accelerating throughout the 20th century.
The 1920s marked the “birth of
the modern,” the start of a newer, freer, more urban and urbane sensibility in
what had once been a hidebound, traditional, culturally and socially
conservative America. The social revolutions that started with the flamboyant
female flappers and their zesty dance, “The Charleston,” came in increasingly
powerful waves with ever-shorter half-lives. By the second-half of the 20th
century, my uncle, Win Gerson, who worked in the advertising business, would
teach me that “the one constant in America... is change.”
The 1930s put
the finishing touches on a national market while empowering labor unions, with
clever black leaders like A. Philip Randolph converting their economic power in
capitalist America into political power. An under-appreciated force in launching
the civil rights movement was the rise of blacks as consumers and as union
members, using their mass muscle to demand dignity – most famously in the
Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s.
The 1940s created the ideological
and legal frameworks that would help liberated blacks. In defeating Nazi racism,
in seeing how German racial superiority ultimately metastasized into the mass
murder of six million Jews, many Americans developed an aversion to racism of
all kind. Anomalies, such as the black soldiers escorting Nazi prisoners to Fort
Leavenworth who were refused service in a Kansas restaurant which had no qualms
about feeding the captured white Nazis, further reinforced attitude changes, as
did the Cold War against Communism.
With the United States parading as a
model democracy, with the Supreme Court enforcing the Constitution more
rigorously, the perversion of racism proved too contradictory; and with
Americans emphasizing the patriotism of the red, white and blue, the differences
between black and white mattered less.
By the 1950s, black celebrities
like the singer and Hollywood star Lena Horne, the Brooklyn Dodgers’
pathbreaking sensation Jackie Robinson, and the Nobel-Prize-winning diplomat who
brokered the 1949 Middle East armistice, Ralph Bunche, were repeatedly crossing
the “color line.” As the celebrities’ firsts accumulated, Americans started
making exceptions for them, then started judging blacks, in Martin Luther King’s
memorable phrasing, less by the “color of their skin,” and more by “the content
of their character.”
Finally, in the 1960s, these trends were accelerated
technologically, by TV which broadcast Southern abuses worldwide, and
politically by John Kennedy, who weeks before the march on Washington defined
civil rights as “primarily” a “moral issue,” as “old as the Scriptures” and “as
clear as the American Constitution.” Therefore, when a student leading the
“sit-in” protests at a coffee shop in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, was
asked, how long they had been planning this protest, he could honestly say “our
The story, of course, has a proud Jewish
These same trends benefitted American Jews. Moreover, as they
integrated and prospered far quicker than blacks, Jews became important
supporters, funders and allies of the Civil Rights Movement. American Jews
understood oppression better than most.
American Jews realized that they
would do better in a country that was more just and more open. And American Jews
were also motivated by the rightness of the cause – our tradition compelled them
to do the right thing, and we should be proud that so many did.
us who despair of seeing any progress in the Middle East should also use this
fiftieth anniversary celebration to remember that attitudes can change; the
once-improbable can become the new normal. If black men can become president of
the United States, and mayors of Jackson, Mississippi; Columbia, South Carolina;
and Greensboro itself, idealistic dreams sometimes can come true. Theodor Herzl
said it and proved it, Martin Luther King said it and proved it. We can,
too.The author is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom
Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book is Moynihan’s Moment:
America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism.
Watch the new Moynihan’s
Moment video! www.giltroy.com
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