While I was on vacation, I watched the first part of CNN’s “The Sixties” series, which dealt with the Civil Rights movement and a look back at the signing of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As a baby boomer, I grew up watching on television the atrocities suffered by black people who only wanted to live as equals in a country that generally had labeled dark-skinned people as second-class citizens.
As I watched the show and heard commentary from those who participated in the struggle for racial equality, I couldn’t help but think that despite the advancements that have been made over the last 50 years, there is still much work left to be done.
I am not trying to be negative. We have a biracial president receiving flak from conservatives and liberals. The city of Youngstown has had a black mayor, and the mayors of Warren and McDonald are black. And some blacks — and they are few — are CEOs of major corporations.
But as I watched the CNN documentary, I couldn’t help but think about the madness and sheer stupidity of denying someone basic rights to get a drink of water, use the bathroom, sit down for a meal at a lunch counter, vote and have top-notch educational opportunities, simply because of the color of his or her skin.
I watched John Lewis, now a U.S. congressman, but back in the 1960s a young man who was at the forefront of the civil-rights struggle, get beat down on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. He said he thought he was going to die that day.
I listened as Alabama governor George Wallace valiantly declared, “Segregation today. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.”
I listened to white people use the N-word as casually as they take a breath of air, not realizing, nor caring, about how their attitudes impacted a race of people.
I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give an interview that the hatred and sheer anger he experienced in Cicero, Ill., when he led a protest for equal housing in that community, was worse than anything he experienced in the deeply segregated South.
I grew up on the East Side of Youngstown. I lived in an integrated neighborhood with other blacks, Irish Catholics, Lebanese, Puerto Ricans, Italians and those of Slovakian heritage. My family lived in a duplex next door to the Drummond family. A few doors down lived the Lyden family. A few homes away lived the Sinkoviches, the Agees, the Hollisters and the Hayeks. I didn’t recall any problems living on South Bruce Street.
But my parents reminded me and my siblings that some of the things happening in the South also were happening in Youngstown.
They told me about Lincoln Park having two pools — one for blacks and one for whites. They told me that Kiddieland at Idora Park amusement park was once a pool in which blacks weren’t allowed to swim. Why was there a need for a black YMCA on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard? Blacks couldn’t get membership at the downtown YMCA on North Champion Street.
When Simeon Booker, Youngstown native and award-winning journalist, spoke here last year, he talked about the prejudice he and other black students experienced at Youngstown College, now Youngstown State University.
When the new homes were being built in what is called the Lincoln Knolls area on the East Side, blacks weren’t welcome. They could, however, rent apartments at the new Kennedy Park Terrace (now called ESA Park Apartments), located off Oak Street.
I don’t know how true this is, but I’ve been told some areas of Youngstown had clauses in property deeds that they would not sell their homes to blacks.
The documentary also pointed out the large number of white people who willingly chose to end America’s apartheid, including two young white men who were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss.
This is an important fact young black people need to remember. You cannot condemn a race of people for what a few have done to you.
I appreciated the statement from Connie Hathorn, Youngstown schools superintendent, when discussing his upbringing in segregation in a story that appeared in our paper last week. “I don’t hate anybody in the white race, because the white race didn’t do this to me. Individuals did this to me,” he said about those who tormented him because of his skin color.
Sadly, there is always going to be racism and bigotry in our society. The call for a dialogue between whites and blacks on the issue of race has been going on for decades.
In our politically correct society we live in today, it is hard to have such discussions. If you criticize black people, and you are white, you are a racist. If you are black and agree with a point made by a white person, you are an “Uncle Tom” or a sellout. If you disagree with a person’s lifestyle choice, you are intolerant.
But if we don’t have that conversation in a meaningful way, without any preconceived ideas or agendas, the divide between the races won’t close.
Affirmative Action is on its last legs. Less than 5 percent of those working in the high-tech Silicon Valley are either black or Latino. New laws are on the books to try to keep blacks from voting, nearly 50 years after the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The United States remains the world’s greatest experiment. We are a melting pot of cultures, people and religions. But we are all Americans, and that should be the one thing we hold on to and build from.
I wonder, 50 years from now, if we will ever learn to embrace our similarities and accept our differences.
Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly minority-affairs column. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.