One hundred forty-seven years ago, a new birth of freedom was proclaimed with the passage of the 13th Amendment, ending slavery and setting the United States down the path to making equality of opportunity more than a buzzword – more than just a nicety reserved for the wealthy.
Nevertheless, that new birth of freedom proclaimed by Lincoln at Gettysburg and expounded upon by the Radical Republicans during the Reconstruction period did not come quickly – with Lincoln’s death and the subsequent collapse of Reconstruction governments to conservative rule, black Americans in the South were subjected to Jim Crow repression for the next hundred years. It wasn’t until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson that the unfinished job of Reconstruction was made all the more whole.
The story doesn’t end with the Great Society, however. As the Radical Republicans of the 19th Century were soon outmanuevered by racist terrorism and a return to conservative rule in the South, so too did the ultimate mission of Reconstruction fall by the wayside of the Great Society liberals – the mission of creating an integrated, colorblind American society.
State-sanctioned segregation might be a thing of the past, but cultural and economic segregation persists. Our churches, our neighborhoods and our hearts remain segregated. The unemployment rate for black Americans is much higher than that for white Americans, and the doors to equal opportunity for black Americans are largely closed off, thanks to barriers to entry in the economy (lack of skills, inadequate education, etc.) and the economic legacy of slavery and four centuries of discrimination.
Will it take us another century to address the problem of our segregated society? Will it take us another century to own up to the fact that millions of our brothers and sisters are suffering under the long shadow of mistakes of the past? What can even be done to address this segregation, in the here and now?
Another century of segregation, even in the private market and in our individual lives, is untenable in the long-run and certainly undesireable. The political reality of course is that those in power would rather offer token solutions to the problem rather than do what is necessary to integrate American society.
It won’t be cheap, and it won’t be easy but it has to be done. We have to create jobs that pay well to break the cycle of poverty, not just for black Americans but for white Americans as well. We have to bring an end to the separation of Americans on the basis of skin color by celebrating not what makes us different, but what can ultimately unite us as one people – white and black Americans need to trust one another. But to do it, we need to create a more equal economy for us all.
Column by Devin Griggs, opinion editor. Devin serves as vice president of finances for the Murray State College Democrats.