I write this essay through the eyes of a fifty-seven year old, white, male American, raised in a working class, Western European, immigrant family. Coming from that background, I have always enjoyed all of the rights and privileges guaranteed under our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
During those fifty-seven years, I’ve never been denied an education or refused admittance to a restaurant or a hotel. My right to vote has never been limited by a poll worker, passing a civics test or owing a poll tax. While I’ve been stopped for a few traffic violations, no cop, sheriff or state trooper has ever pulled me over for driving while white.
In 1960, this Ohio boy took my first trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line—a mid-summer trip to Florida, with many stops in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Coming from Ohio, I was struck by the reality of racial segregation in the form of separate public facilities like water fountains and waiting rooms. I remember eating lunch in a North Carolina cafeteria and remarking to my parents that I couldn’t understand why it was okay for African-Americans to prepare and serve the food I was eating, but not be permitted to eat in that same cafeteria.
Not long after that trip, I began to see increasing television coverage of the civil rights movement. I was struck by the ugliness of the racist governors like Ross Barnett and George Wallace and thuggish tactics employed by their police toadies like Sheriff Bull Connor. However brutish these officials were towards those demanding equality, I became impressed with those leading the opposition to racial oppression like Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless other brave individuals, willing to take a beating or a stay in a county jail to end the senseless brutality of segregation.
Needless to say, this era didn’t reflect the ideals of freedom and equality as defined by our constitution. In terms of our history, it was time to write a new chapter, one that would let us turn the page on the divisive history which we began writing the day the first African slaves reached the new world.
Today, we’re writing new chapter of history, one which might allow us to permanently shelve our segregationist history book and finally achieve the revolutionary ideal true equality. As I write this essay, we are five months from the possibility of electing our first African-American president.
When Barack Obama was born in 1961, we were three years from passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, repealing the Jim Crow Laws and four years from passing the Voting Rights Act. In other words, at the time I was permitted to eat and sleep where I pleased, Barack Obama would have been subject to laws which prohibited such things. I believe his election to our highest office, forty-seven years after being born into a still segregated America, would be a sea change in the right direction.
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