I’m teaching a course on the 1960s. The racist normality of the early 1960s is difficult for my students to comprehend. None of them have attended a segregated school, they don’t routinely hear racist slurs, and they can’t quite believe that white people commonly assumed African Americans were mentally inferior.
In hindsight, history appears inevitable. Historians contribute to this appearance by trying to explain everything. No matter how unexpected a past event was, we describe its antecedents, its causes, contributing to the easy assumption that things could not have turned out any differently. It had to be that way.
But it didn’t. The tortured history of the civil rights era is filled with moments when white people in power made fateful choices to continue discrimination, to ignore protests or attack protesters, to maintain a system based on hatred and lies. These choices are the real history of the 1960s.
When Jackie Robinson refused to sit in the back of a US Army bus in 1944, a superior officer chose to try to court martial him for public drunkenness, even though he didn’t drink.
When the Supreme Court decided in 1954 that “separate but equal” public schools were unconstitutional, 19 Senators and 82 Representatives, all from the South, chose to sign the Southern Manifesto in opposition. White elected officials across the South chose to obstruct and delay integration of their schools, while white parents chose to remove their students from integrated public schools.
When Alva Earley attended an NAACP picnic in an informally segregated public park in Galesburg, IL, in 1959, school officials there chose to ban him from graduating. When four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at a Woolworth lunch counter in 1960 in Greensboro, NC, and asked to be served, the owners chose to refuse them service. At a similar sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, a mob of white citizens chose to assault these potential customers, and the police and FBI chose to watch.
When some courageous white and black Americans rode the public busses in 1961 into the South, police chose to arrest them in North and South Carolina, and white mobs in Alabama and Mississippi chose to attack and beat them, and burn their bus, while the police and highway patrolmen chose to watch. Attorney General Robert Kennedy chose to let the local police arrest the Freedom Riders. Local hospital administrators chose not to treat injured white Freedom Riders. When a group of white and black citizens marched peacefully from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, the police and the Alabama state troopers chose to attack them with tear gas and billy clubs.
In every case, the choices that were made were against the law, even if they were made by officials who had sworn to uphold the law. In every case, those white people with ultimate power chose to look the other way, to allow the real criminals to flout our Constitution, to use illegal violence against other Americans, and then to continue to hold the offices they had dishonored. In every case, reasonable voices close to these situations, white and black, urged different choices. There really were choices to be made.
Eventually things changed. The American public got disgusted with these choices. Leaders like Lyndon Johnson decided to use their power in a different way. Even segregationists like George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama, disavowed their earlier choices.
But it had taken a long time. Schools were still segregated 15 years after the Supreme Court decision. African Americans were still prevented from voting 100 years after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Discrimination in housing and employment still happens.
Our history could have been different, if some people in power had made different choices. More peaceful, more just, more legal. Those choices are harder to understand now. It’s easier to abstract these events from the alternatives that existed, to assume that it just was that way. It might have been a different way, though, had those people made other choices.
“We are our choices.” Jean-Paul Sartre
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 16, 2014