Remembering dates and events is important to understanding history, but that’s not what makes history most valuable. What’s most valuable is understanding how we got to where we are, having context for the present and a guide toward to the future.
Look back just 50 years. In January 1963, George Wallace was inaugurated as governor of Alabama and said he was drawing a line in the sand against the civil-rights movement and would defend “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” His was a different America, but it gave birth to our America, which is why it matters that we remember more than dates, that we look deeper and follow the threads forward.
Wallace eventually lost his battle to preserve state-mandated segregation, but the historian Taylor Branch has noted that the language Wallace created after it was no longer acceptable to openly champion segregation is still used today.
I heard Branch speaking online as he was being interviewed by James Fallows of The Atlantic last week.
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Wallace railed against big government and Washington bureaucrats, and against the national media, which he called biased and accused of pushing a racial agenda. He denied race had anything to do with his positions or his statements. He just wanted to keep the federal government out of his state’s business. The media and the federal government both reluctantly made his business theirs, but only because the leaders of the civil-rights movement pushed relentlessly and pulled the covers off injustices that most Americans didn’t want to see.
That year, images went around the world of police dogs and fire hoses being turned on peaceful marchers, many of them children. Television viewers and newspaper readers saw the devastation in Birmingham, where one Sunday morning, a bomb placed in a church killed four girls. Journalists wrote about civil-rights leader Medgar Evers, a World War II veteran gunned down in front of his house.
The South wasn’t the only area with a racial hierarchy. In 1963, a black person who wanted to work in downtown Seattle had to settle for a menial job. Housing covenants and real-estate practices would prevent that same person from living in many neighborhoods around King County. Indeed, under pressure from fairness advocates, the Seattle City Council in 1963 put an open-housing ordinance on the ballot, but voters turned it down the next spring.
Branch, who is best known for his telling of the modern civil-rights movement through a detailed history of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said 1963 held the seeds of changes that went far beyond the black struggle for civil rights.
King’s leadership touched equal rights for women, economic growth in the South and the influx of legal immigrants from around the globe, Branch said. Glossing over that history or misunderstanding it, affects how we view current issues — resegregation, persistent economic inequalities, immigration — and attitudes toward government.
The night before Evers was killed, President Kennedy gave a major speech in which he proposed a bill that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination against women and against racial, ethnic and religious minorities. It would be followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended preferential treatment of Northern and Western Europeans and opened America’s doors to immigrants from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world.
Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Vice President Lyndon Johnson took his place and was able to push through the civil-rights legislation. Johnson, a Texan, knew the South, and he knew signing those bills would change the political balance. White Southerners had been mostly Democrats before, afterward they moved to the Republican Party, which changed its positions to entice them. The outcome of that is playing out today. You can still hear George Wallace’s rhetoric coming from the lips of tea-party Republicans.
In some ways it’s as William Faulkner wrote” “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
You can hear the Branch interview at bit.ly/V5Nlc0.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @jerrylarge