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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Race Relations: How Far Have We Come In 50 Years?

Mississippi, Summer 1964
Missouri, Summer 2014
In the summer of 1964, the state of Mississippi was ablaze with danger and protests over the treatment of black citizens there. Today, 50 summers later, the situation is much the same, but this time the location afire is Missouri.

In both cases, killing was a catalyst for the outrage. In Mississippi, it was the murder of 3 Civil Rights movement workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by members of the Ku Klux Klan. In Ferrguson, Mo., it was the shooting death of a young black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.

To understand the situation unfolding in Ferguson, you have merely to turn on your television set. But if you live in the DC area, you might want to consider visiting the Newseum to view the exhibit 1964: Civil Rights at 50 so you can consider the 2 confrontations and what as a package they say about America.

The Newseum exhibit is divided into 4 sections. They are:
  • The Civil Rights Act
  • Freedom Summer: Prepping for Trouble
  • Freedom Summer: Mississippi Burning
  • Freedom Summer:  The Fight for Voting Rights
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Newseum held a special program with participants in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in June. Two of the key speakers claimed that America is backsliding on Civil Rights and issued warnings that seem highly prophetic in light of the Jefferson situation.

"We are not a country that wants to own its history," said Bob Moses, Freedom Summer organizer and former head of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). "We have to ask - are we a country that pays attention to its history? We're not out of this, not by a long shot."

Rita Schwerner Bender, the widow of the slain Michael Schwerner, said "We are at a very dangerous 
place in this country. We need to know where we were to know where we are now."

Georgia Congressman and noted Civil Rights era leader John Lewis has also spoken on race issues at the Newseum. Last week, on Meet the Press, Lewis said images emerging from Ferguson "looked like it was Baghdad"  and called the situation a "shame and a disgrace." 

"People have a right to protest, people have a right to engage in peaceful nonviolent action and the press has a right to cover what is going on. We have to get police officers and local elected officials to respect the dignity and worth of every human being," said Lewis, who was severely beaten and arrested numerous times during 1960s protests.

Perhaps the most telling connection between the 2 outbreaks separated by 50 years is the wording contained in the Newseum exhibition. In 1964, the activist protesters in Mississippi fully expected to be arrested and carried $500 in bail money. The Mississippi police meanwhile stockpiled more tear gas and riot guns. Change Mississippi to Missouri and add 50 years, you could write the same sentence. Except I imagine bail is more than $500 today.

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I am a retired educator and journalist who is enjoying his new life in DC. So much to do here and so much for free.

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