“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. . .” read Justice Earl Warren’s majority opinion in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, handed down lo these 60 years. It was the beginning of the end for legal segregation in America and the opening salvo of the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s common knowledge that bears repeating here in the South: African-Americans in this country had already been fighting for equal status before the law for nearly 100 years at that point. An open question: What is the greatest failure of post-Vietnam liberal America? In all of our major cities black and white people still live, for the most part, separately and unequally.
I remember as a freshman in college listening to Cornel West deliver his first lecture in the “African-American Autobiography,” his signature course. I found the fluid logical-poetic reinterpretation of history mind boggling. His story? I also remember that the first three rows of McCosh Hall were full of black students, the talented tenth so to speak, and that the rest of the auditorium stretching back to the rear corners I liked to inhabit was white, the 1 percent, if you like.
For me and my group of friends, the reality and subtlety of a segregated society hit us when we went away to school, because we were becoming adults and feeling the weight of the truth. Our opportunities would be, to one degree or another, separate but unequal; cue black anger and white guilt.
The allegory, call it history, of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass is a profound one. The white voice of the Abolitionist movement, who opened the coffers of industrial New England to the anti-slavery cause on the back of his moral authority, befriended a black man capable of defying every definition of the day. But when Douglass’ The North Star began to shine brighter than Garrison’s The Liberator (these were newspaper men!), a rift emerged in the relationship that reflects the insidiousness of the race divide. It would be hard to deny that both Douglass and Garrison desired the same end and shared an affection for one another, but their experiences were so separate that they could not navigate their mistrust.
This week’s cover story is about a local attempt to move past the junction of black anger and white guilt to the confluence of black and white priorities. It reflects, I think, a generational acceptance that equality is an idea, reality is the firmest foundation for solutions, and history is a broken record.