By Don Keelan
Over the past half-dozen years, there have been countless news stories about systemic racism in America followed by discussions on diversity, unity, and inclusiveness. Paralleling this media is several wanton killings of Black Americans by law-enforcement officials.
Folks of my generation, born in the 1930s, ‘40s, and early ‘50s, have a difficult time understanding the former, but not in the least, the latter. We had lived through decades of outright segregation, discrimination, and open hostility to all who were not white.
On a personal note, growing up outside the Bronx, I did not encounter discrimination, not to say it did not exist in Westchester County. It certainly did but was more subtle. It wasn’t until my time in the Marines and working for an international CPA firm that outright forms of segregation and discrimination came into full view.
It was unreal to a 17-year-old from Mt. Vernon, New York, to witness the four Black Marines of my 24-Marine platoon who could not leave the bus for the diner in Frederick, MD, an hour before going on guard duty at Camp David (President Eisenhower was in residence.) Nor was it comfortable, when auditing the large shipbuilding company in Newport News, Virginia, to see the signs, “White Fountains” and “Negro Fountains.” Moreover, the Black shipyard workers were only allowed to do rigging and maintenance until 1969, when the rules changed.
A few weeks ago, a column in the Manchester Journal noted, “About the only thing that has changed since 1619 is that whites are no longer allowed to own Black people, but we are still doing just about everything we can think of to hold Black people back.”
Only the ignorant would say that discrimination is non-existent today. It is ever-present. Not only towards people of color but also in sexism, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, economic and educational status, and so on. However, it is also incorrect to advance the notion that nothing has been done in America to remove institutional discrimination and segregation — the most egregious forms of racism.
In my lifetime and that of my peers, we saw the adoption of President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 in 1941 that ended the Marine Corps not enlisting Black and Native American personnel. Five years later, in 1947, a man became the first Black player to enter Major League Baseball. The doors of the NFL, MBA, and NBA were thrown wide-open.
Under President Truman, the U.S. Armed Forces ended a centuries-long tradition of segregation with E.O. #9981, followed five years later by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Topeka. President Eisenhower did not hesitate to enforce the ruling in 1957 when he sent elements of the 101st Airborne Division to open Little Rock, AK schools to Black children.
While the above was progress, it was nowhere near the progress and change needed. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made this abundantly clear on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. His speech motivated the country to change, and change did come with the 1964 Civil Rights Act followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Sealed doors were finally opened for Black people to participate in government service, medicine, entertainment, commerce and sports, at all levels. This culminated in November 2008, when, for the first time, American voters decided that they wanted a Black leader for the country. And they did so again, in November 2012.
And let us never forget, between 1861 and 1865, 360,000 Union soldiers gave their lives to end the scourge of slavery.
Has there been progress in correcting the injustice of what took place on the shores of Virginia in 1619? Yes, but it was not accomplished by having classes on indoctrination defining Critical Race Theory. Much was accomplished through education and example. And the collapse of segregation/discrimination was in great part due to the absence of the curtain of social media. It wasn’t there to hide behind.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.