Times of challenge and controversy
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Martin Luther King Jr., 1963.
February is Black History Month. Some people think because we are all Americans, dedicating a month to Black History is somehow un-American. Those people have forgotten what life was like in America for centuries for black Americans. As recently as the 1960s, black entertainers in Las Vegas, even such giants as Sammy Davis, Jr., were not allowed to stay in the hotels where they entertained. They were required to go to the “black” section of Las Vegas to get a hotel room. This is not ancient history.
I’ve chosen three cases, among many, to illustrate how recent and how pervasive this oppression of black people was. Even the most common activities could be dangerous.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, saying that segregated schools were unconstitutional. In spite of this ruling, black students still couldn’t enroll in white schools, so in 1957, the Little Rock, Arkansas, school board created a plan to integrate their schools, starting with high school.
On Sept. 4, 1957, nine black students attempted to start school at Little Rock High School. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the entrance to the school, preventing these nine students from attending.
By the end of September 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division to protect these students. He later nationalized the Arkansas National Guard to continue this protection. The students were allowed to attend classes but endured ongoing harassment, both verbal and physical. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown in her eyes. This was just 60 years ago, well within the lifetime of many of us. All this because black students believed they were entitled to a good education.
The second incident was even more bizarre than the Little Rock High School case. In 1960, the Bridges family sent their six-year-old daughter Ruby to first grade. Nothing unusual, except that Ruby was black and the school was a white school in New Orleans, La. White parents pulled their children out of school; teachers refused to teach as long as a black child was in the school. For her safety, Ruby had to be escorted to school by U.S. Marshalls. She even received death threats. The school brought in a teacher from Massachusetts. For the whole year, Ruby and her teacher were alone in her classroom.
Parents eventually brought their children back to the school, and by the end of the year, the protests had subsided. However, the Bridges family faced serious consequences for their decision, including Mr. Bridges losing his job. All because they sent their little girl to school.
In 1958, a young couple got married in Washington D.C. and then went home to Virginia, where they were promptly jailed. The problem? Richard Loving was white and his wife Mildred was black. In 1958, a black person marrying a white person was illegal in 24 states, violating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. For the Lovings, something as beautiful as getting married was a crime. They were sentenced to a year in prison unless they left the state. In 1967, the Lovings took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. This ended all laws prohibiting marriage between races, but until then, all inter-racial couples were criminals if they entered certain states in our country.
There are so many more stories like these, such as the three civil rights workers who were helping people register to vote in Mississippi in 1964. They were murdered, with the town complicit. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act these young men died for, opening the way for voter suppression in several states. This is not ancient history. People fought and died to win these rights; we can’t just lie down and let them be destroyed.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We must not become silent. We need to stand up for everyone’s rights, not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because ours might be the next to be challenged. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Jeanette Strong, whose column appears every other week, is a Nevada Press Association award-winning columnist. She may be reached at email@example.com.