August 28, marks the fiftieth 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 folks. 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 nineteenth-century, then accelerating throughout the twentieth 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 twentieth 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 whole lives.”
The story, of course, has a proud Jewish subtext. 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.
Those of 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 a black can become President of the United States and blacks can become 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.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History, 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!