Getting better

Posted: Jul 01, 2005 12:00 AM

The fall television season is seldom filled with re-runs, but this October there’ll be an exception. Get ready for the 10th anniversary of the “Million Man March” in October, and get ready to endure a litany of complaints about the state of race relations in this country.
Race-baiting “minister” Louis Farrakhan got the ball rolling back in June when he announced, “If anybody deserves to strap a bomb on themselves and give pain for the pain we have suffered, it is we. But none of us would kill.” That’s a relief.

 Not to be outdone, another “minister” from Toledo announced, “They don’t want to see us do for self.” Charles Muhammad added in the Toledo Blade, “The success of the Million Man March shows they don’t have any control of what we think and who we want to be associated with.”

 That rhetoric is sure to heat up as the march approaches, but the underlying theme will be consistent: The United States is a racist country.

If the organizers wanted to disprove that assumption, though, they could hold their march at a beach in South Carolina. Because just a few days there should prove that race relations in this country are better than ever before.

We’ve made so much progress since, say, 1960 that it ought to boggle our minds.

I recently played a round of golf at a course near Litchfield Beach. My playing partner was a native Georgian. A man from Georgia and a man from New York playing golf together -- that alone would have been notable just a few decades ago.

We were paired with an even more unlikely duo -- an elderly white man from South Carolina and a middle-aged black man, a chaplain at a nearby school. Not long ago, this man’s skin color would have kept him off the golf course. Today, he’s unremarkably filling out a foursome with three white men.

By coincidence, this was the same day that a Mississippi jury convicted 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen of manslaughter. Killen, a “former” leader of the Ku Klux Klan will spend the rest of his life in prison for his role in the 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.

Killen’s conviction is remarkable, because it alone shows how far this country has come. In attempting to defend Killen, his lawyer noted, “He lives eight miles from the courthouse. Why they are prosecuting this case now is beyond me.” But that’s exactly the point. In the 1950s and 60s, it was possible, if not likely, for a known violent racist could feel completely secure living just a few miles from the seat of justice. He never expected to have to answer for his actions.

However, the country has changed. For the better.

Another example appeared in the June 26 Washington Post. Columnist Courtland Milloy wrote that, “During a road trip with my dad in the summer of 1987, every state line we crossed -- from Louisiana to Mississippi to Arkansas -- seemed to trigger in him recollections of white terrorism, or black triumph over it, from his years growing up in the Old South.” Milloy’s point was that a recent Senate apology for its failure to outlaw lynching was pointless.
Well, of course. All apologies by people not involved in the original actions are pointless.
When Bill Clinton went to Africa to apologize for slavery, it was equally pointless; he’d never owned slaves, he’d never trafficked in slaves, so what did he have to apologize for?

But Milloy’s piece is a reminder of the not-so-distant past. Just decades ago, simply driving in the wrong place could get a black person arrested, beaten up or even killed. Today, blacks travel the south as fearlessly as whites do. And if they do get swept up in the criminal justice system, they may well end up appearing before a black judge. Imagine the thought of a black judge in South Carolina in 1964.

The sad fact is that, today, most segregation is self-segregation. Whites-only groups are rare (even Augusta National, the home of Southern aristocracy, has black members), but blacks-only groups are proliferating.

 Of course the issue of race relations isn’t finished. Nothing that large and sweeping ever is. Even after a man finishes a marathon, he’s still got to travel home. Still, we’ve come many miles in this country. Instead of endlessly beating ourselves up, we should spend some time celebrating just how far we’ve come, and how quickly.

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