Democracy Demands Memory
By Julian Bond
Vol. 19, No. 1, 1997 pp. 3-4
“I tell my children today they don’t know anything. You know, when I hear young folk talking about what they ain’t gonna take, and I like to sit down and tell ’em, ‘You haven’t seen anything. You just don’t know what it’s all about. I don’t know what it is you can’t take.’ And when I go back telling them some of my history, you know, they perk up their ears.”
Mary Sanford, a tenants rights and housing activist in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1992
Mary Sanford’s words and the reminiscences of other Southerners, black and white, about the civil rights movement ought to be required listening, because few Americans have heard them.
You can hear them in Will The Circle Be Unbroken?–a landmark radio documentary on the civil rights movement. The radio programs tell the story of how Sanford and hundreds of other people in five southern communities watched, made–and sometimes tried to stop–one of America’s most powerful social movements.
Ordinary Americans who witnessed and participated in the movement explain what we Americans have done so far in closing the racial divide; they explain what else needs to be accomplished.
They help explain why we still argue over whether racial minorities ought to be elected to public office; whether merit was ever really the test for getting a job or a seat in a university freshman class; whether children should be bused to schools.
For much of the twentieth century, an interracial
black-led movement fought against white supremacy. That after nearly one-hundred years the job remains undone is not a testimony to the movement’s failure; it is a measure of how great the odds were, and how difficult the task is that remains.
Mis-memory of this movement threatens to erase the reality of the often brutal past, the class divisions evident in every institution from church to school, the failure of civic institutions to service black communities, and most of all the cruelty and harshness of American apartheid.
A survey of racial attitudes by the seventy-eight-year-old Southern Regional Council demonstrates that while Americans do not place reducing racial inequality high on their list of priorities. few Americans really believe they live in a color-blind society.
One-third of the public has no idea what “affirmative action” is, and makes no connection at all between those two words and race and gender. But, a majority think qualified minority and female applicants deserve it. Three out of four believe our elected officials ought to reflect the diversity of the electorate, and if eliminating majority black districts causes a decrease in black representation, a majority favors drawing such districts 58 to 29 percent.
The more poll respondents knew about our history, and the more the likely results of ending race-specific remedies to discrimination were explained to them, the more likely they were to respond thoughtfully, rather than with bumper-sticker answers.
In more and more schools, students learn about the democratic civil rights movement of the recent past. They learn that ordinary women and men were moved to extraordinary acts of courage. They learn that Ozell Sutton (now with the Justice Department) risked his job as a journalist when he challenged a newspaper’s policy that discriminated against black women. They learn that when Rosa Parks refused to stand up on a bus in Montgomery and when Martin Luther King, Jr., stood up to preach, mass participation came to the movement for civil rights. They learn that most presidents had to be forced, by public pressure built by the movement, to make the weakest gesture toward insuring freedom for all citizens.
And they learn that what was done once may well be done again.
At the end of Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, former Arkansas governor Sid McMath says:
“I think you’ve got a need for continuing a civil rights movement, that’s not just the blacks. Of course the civil rights movement wasn’t restricted to blacks. There were a lot of good white people in there. And you need a civil rights movement for everybody. Women need a continuing civil rights movement and the blacks and the Mexicans. They should all join together in the civil rights movement to see that the rights we have are protected and that the laws we have on the books are implemented and that the Bill of Rights is recognized in spirit as well as in the letter of the law. So there’s a continued need for the civil rights movement. Civil rights education. Human rights.”
Julian Bond is a professor at American University in Washington, DC and the University of Virginia. Since he was a college student leading sit-in demonstrations in Atlanta in 1960, he has been an active participant in the movements for civil rights, economic justice and peace, and an aggressive spokesman for the disinherited.