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Dream Interpretation: The March On Washington's enduring legacy

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  • Ram Lau
    http://www.reason.com/links/links082503.shtml August 25, 2003 Dream Interpretation The March On Washington s enduring legacy Ronald Bailey I have a dream.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2006
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      http://www.reason.com/links/links082503.shtml
      August 25, 2003

      Dream Interpretation
      The March On Washington's enduring legacy
      Ronald Bailey



      "I have a dream."

      The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those famous words on the
      steps of the Lincoln Memorial 40 years ago this week. The old civil
      rights campaigners who gathered in Washington this past weekend to
      mark the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington focused on what
      they believe is left to be done—the dreams that are yet to be
      realized. However, though race is still certainly a troublesome issue
      in America, many of Dr. King's dreams have come true.

      I was only 9 years old when those words were uttered. I grew up on a
      hardscrabble dairy farm in the Appalachian mountain country in
      Washington County, Virginia, in the still segregated South. Blacks
      were required to watch movies from balconies in the theatres in
      Bristol Virginia. (As a kid I wanted to sit there, it seemed so cool
      to be high up and looking down.) I confess that I don't recall things
      like separate waiting rooms at bus stations or public drinking
      fountains. That's probably because I didn't get off the farm much and
      possibly because I was simply clueless.

      What did change in Washington County in 1963 was that our public
      schools integrated. As I recall there was no great drama about it. Not
      necessarily because the whites of Washington County were so racially
      enlightened, but more likely because our county had so few black
      residents. Nevertheless, we started school as usual in September and
      there were a couple of new black kids in my 3rd grade class at
      Meadowview Elementary School. The black school down near Bristol was
      closed and the black kids simply went to the school closest to their
      homes. That was it. Unfortunately, that was not the case in the rest
      of Virginia.

      The 1950s and early 1960s were the era of "Massive Resistance" in
      Virginia when state and local governments fought to prevent the
      integration of public schools. Most infamously, Prince Edward County
      closed all its schools in 1959 rather than integrate. The Prince
      Edward County schools remained shut for five years until a Federal
      Court ordered them reopened in 1964. But times have changed for the
      better. Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a
      resolution officially expressing "profound regret" over the closing of
      those schools. In June, in an attempt to make amends for past
      injustices, some 400 people were awarded honorary high school diplomas
      from Prince Edward County. It can't make up for what happened then,
      but at least the injustice has been recognized.

      My home state, Virginia also figured prominently in another repulsive
      racial injustice—the prohibition of interracial marriages. Virginia
      was not alone; at one time 30 states had laws prohibiting
      "miscegenation." In 1958, a white man named Richard Loving married a
      black woman, Mildred Jeter, in the District of Columbia. When they
      returned home to Virginia, Ms. Loving was arrested. Under a 1922
      anti-miscegenation law, black and white couples could be sent to
      prison for 1 to 5 years. It took until 1967 for the U.S. Supreme Court
      to strike down Virgnia's statute forbidding interracial marriages in
      Loving v. Virginia. America is not yet a racial melting pot, but the
      rate of interracial marriages continues to rise, with the percentage
      of mixed race marriages increasing from 4.4 percent in 1990 to 6.7
      percent in 2000.

      Again, not assuming that Washington County was a paradise of racial
      harmony, it is still worth noting that by the time I was a senior in
      high school in the antediluvian year of 1972, our predominantly white
      school elected a black student, Geraldine Logan, as our one and only
      Homecoming Queen. (I loathe the custom of having black and white
      Homecoming Courts-it smacks all too readily of the old "separate but
      equal" standards.)

      The King speech also lent momentum to two of the most consequential
      pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, the Civil
      Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights
      Act outlawed state-sanctioned and enforced racial discrimination in
      the form of Jim Crow laws. For example, it allowed blacks to come down
      out of that theatre balcony in Bristol Virginia. The Voting Rights Act
      insured that Southern blacks who were being systematically denied the
      franchise by corrupt voter registration officials would have access to
      the ballot box.

      Sure, these laws are not perfect. For example, Title VII of the Civil
      Rights Act has been interpreted as authorizing the creation of
      affirmative action programs. This despite the fact that Senator Hubert
      Humphrey (D-MN) declared specifically that Title VII "would prohibit
      preferential treatment for any particular group," and famously
      promised that if this turned out to be wrong that he would eat the
      pages on which the statute was printed. I wonder if the Senator would
      have liked the pages sautéed or with a nice béchamel? And yes, the
      Voting Rights Act has led to "racial gerrymandering." Still, we are a
      far better, and fairer country because of those laws.

      Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the only remaining speaker from the 1963
      march, told the Washington Post, "I wish Dr. King could see the
      progress that we have made, see the distance that we have come."


      Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent.
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