WASHINGTON: There was a time, not too long ago, when I thought my generation would leave America better than we found it. Now, I’m not so sure. This is particularly true when it comes to race relations. We are now living through race riots across America’s cities with no end in site.
This has been a subject of concern to me ever since I was in high school.
In my high school in New York, which had a student body of several thousand, there was, to my knowledge, not a single black student. Growing up, I almost never encountered a black person. This changed when I went to college in Virginia. There, I encountered many black people. But those were the years of segregation.
Signs designating restrooms, water fountains, and other amenities made it clear which ones were reserved for those who were “White” and those who were “Colored.”
In my years in college, graduate school, and law school, I never encountered a black fellow student or teacher.
As someone who viewed himself as a conservative, I believed in limited government and individual freedom.
What right did the state of Virginia have to tell men and women whom to marry or restaurant owners whom to serve? At the College of William and Mary, I wrote a column in “The Flat Hat,” the school’s weekly newspaper. When sit-ins began in various parts of the South, I wrote a column defending civil disobedience against unjust laws, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that,
“Good men do not obey the laws too well.”
I joined with black students at the nearby Hampton Institute in demonstrations against segregation. In law school, I wrote an article for the William and Mary Law Review about Virginia’s miscegenation laws which barred marriage between whites and non-whites.
A few years later that law was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
When I was a freshman in college, President Eisenhower sent troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. In those days, the Democratic Party-controlled Virginia and other Southern states. Democrats were committed to maintaining segregation, and closed schools rather than integrate them.
I became the College Secretary of the Young Republican Federation of Virginia.
The Republicans in Virginia opposed segregation and Republicans nationally viewed themselves as “the party of Lincoln.”
Democrats, with so many segregationists in their ranks, resisted efforts to advance civil rights.
Later, when I moved to Washington, segregation was still largely in place but was beginning to come to an end. I taught for one year at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Alexandria, Virginia. The school often boasted that it had one black student. Other schools in the area still had none.
When I taught a graduate school course at the Pentagon, I asked one of my students, a military officer, why there were so many restrooms on each hall. He said that was because when the Pentagon was built in the years of segregation, there were two restrooms for men and two for women at each interval.
One was previously marked “White” and one was marked “Colored.”
I was working in Congress in 1968 when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered.
The city was engulfed in riots and troops were called in to patrol the streets. It was a difficult time. Many feared for the country’s future. President Lyndon Johnson said this to an aide:
“What did you expect? I don’t know why we’re surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.”
Race relations reality is complex.
Steady progress in race relations has been taking place. If in our bull sessions in college, someone had suggested that we would live to see a black president, two black Secretaries of State and black Supreme Court Justices, people would have said you were mad. Yet, all of this has happened.
Today, the city of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was brutally murdered by police, has a black police chief. (8 Minutes and 46 Seconds: How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody)
Minnesota has a black Attorney General, and neighboring St. Paul has a black mayor. There is no position in our country to which a black man or woman cannot aspire.
When Ronald Reagan was elected president, I served on his transition team at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). My good friend Jay Parker, one of the earliest black conservatives, was head of that team, which included Clarence Thomas, later to be named to the Supreme Court.
Jay and I worked together at The Lincoln Institute to advance our goal of a genuinely color-blind society, where men and women would be judged on their individual merits, not on the basis of race. We believed that our free enterprise system provided opportunities for advancement to people regardless of race once discrimination based upon race was eliminated.
Many distinguished black academicians, writers, and others such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams joined our efforts.
And yet, in 2020 racial strife continues.
The list of black men and women brutalized by the police continues to grow. Black fathers and mothers continue to set aside time to tell their sons how to act in public to avoid trouble with the police. And those police officers who have taken the lives of black men in their custody, usually have remained in their jobs and hardly ever been criminally charged.
Now, in the case of the police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, this seems to be changing. That is certainly a hopeful sign.
In an open letter, the Major Cities Chiefs Association said police officers need to acknowledge
“A history dating back over two centuries that has included institutional racism…We need to hear what America is telling us right now and we need to take bold and courageous action to change the narrative of our history as it relates to the disparate impact and outcomes that policing has had—-and continues to have—-on African Americans, people of color and the disenfranchised.”
The police chiefs seem prepared to confront the very real problems we face with law enforcement. Others, unfortunately, continue to deny that a real problem exists. White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, for example, said that he did not think systemic racism was a problem in law enforcement, blaming “a few bad apples” for incidents of abuse.
Even if this were true—-which even the police chiefs deny, those few “bad apples” have not been brought to justice and continue to remain as police officers, until Minneapolis.
Some in Congress have offered legislation aimed at addressing racial discrimination and police abuse of power. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is working on a plan to create a national registry of police misconduct and to ban racial and religious profiling nationwide. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) introduced a proposal to end the “qualified immunity” that protects police officers from being sued in many cases of misconduct.
“This pattern continues because police are legally, politically, and culturally insulated from consequences for violating the rights of the people whom they have sworn to serve.”
Race Riots and violence, sadly, do harm to the larger cause of racial equality.
But the anger within the black community and on the part of many other Americans is clear. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley notes that
“With what’s happening in Minneapolis and the neglect of black communities from the COVID crisis, there’s palpable anger at Donald Trump and his supporters that very well can create a season of riots or urban disruption.”
America has endured many crises in my life and we have successfully moved beyond them.
It appeared that America was coming apart during the Vietnam War, after the murder of Martin Luther King and the riots which followed. We seemed to be ready to face the reality of the second class citizenship we had imposed upon black Americans by passing the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Before 1964, a black family in America, taking a trip, had no idea where they might eat dinner, use a restroom, or spend the night. But these steps have not been sufficient. The continuing brutality suffered by black men at the hands of the police is a dramatic example of this fact.
I hope we will recover from our present Race Riots and move forward, as we did after our past crises.
I believe that we will, for we have confronted other situations from the Depression to World War ll and, with a kind of leadership which we do not have at the present time, come out stronger. Race relations remain our continuing dilemma, and it is essential that we turn our attention to it. If we do. My generation may yet leave America better than we found it. For the sake of my children and grandchildren, I hope that we do.
— Headline image: Ralph Abernathy and Family, Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King on the March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama.