[I decided to do a four-part series for Black History Month on each Friday of this month. Part I explores how far African-Americans have come, Part II explores the New Racism, Part III looks at things holding African-Americans back, and Part IV looks at heroes (with a weird twist). I make no apologies if this offends anyone; it is my opinion, and I refuse to apologize if someone feels I have stepped on toes when I haven't...]
One of the problems with the fight for Civil Rights is that people tend to forget how much has been won. Occasionally, you need to pause, smell the flowers, and see how far you've come.
And African-Americans have come a long way. Prior to the Civil War, owning a black slave was a mark of a successful plantation owner; if you owned a hundred or so, you were really successful. Admittedly, they had no rights and were only counted as 3/5 of a person, but it was a start...
[The jerk in me needs to point out three things: 1) Slaves weren't just black, 2) Less than half the states had slaves, and 2) Black slaves were actually considered an investment, and were thus treated better than most slaves. Compare to the treatment of Central American natives or the Irish...]
The South would fall to The North in the Civil War. In a lot of ways, this saved The South; their dependence on their agricultural base would have caused problems. At the same time, the newly freed slaves needed to fit in; rather than acting in its own best interest, Southerners needed someone to punish, and so they punished blacks. Voting rights were restricted, Jim Crow laws were created, and life was not fun.
Fortunately, wheels had already been set in motion. The Northerners started passing laws and constitutional amendments to safeguard black rights, and to get them on as even a footing as they could. Although they had to renege on the forty acres and a mule, the basis for civil rights had been created. If the US had not been hit by a depression in the 1880's, it would have been interesting to see what could have happened.
After the depression, the US was hit by a few major wars, suffrage, and another depression. During this, racism thrived; it festered in the dark even as blacks started doing well. By the time of the Harlem Renaissance, from 1919 to 1930, blacks had realized that staying in the South would be a bad thing, and so moved on, literally and figuratively. I think it can be reasonably argued that,if the Great Depression and WWII had not happened, the great civil rights battles of the 1960's would have been fought in the 1930's. Blacks were successfully challenging stereotypes, as well as creating some incredible strides, showing that they were no longer merely ex-slaves.
Nonetheless, the events did happen, and so the major civil rights fights happened in an already nasty couple of decades. Not only did the US need to deal with civil rights, it also had to deal with Viet Nam, the sexual revolution, the first major peace protests, and disco. In this, they had to deal with their own inner problems, such as the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rise of black militism, which, combined with the “Uncle Tom” politics (ostracizing those that wanted more for themselves or their families) actually set the movement back.
Think about this for a moment from the side of the authorities: You have all this civil unrest happening, the constant threat of nuclear armageddon, and even a president quitting amid scandal. The 1970's was not a great time to be a politician. Mistakes were made, as they were bound to be. Somehow, blacks survived all of this, and it actually somehow moved forward, even after hitting the road bump of “Sir” Charles Barkley, who wasn't a role-model.
However, the respectablity of gangsta rap and the inability to give up the word “nigger” threaten to undo a lot of what went before. Worse, the damage that black leaders did by pointing out that school is not just a waste of time, but can actually be dangerous, created a nasty side-effect: In a world where education defines your job, blacks were losing ground. Which, of course, was blamed on “institutional racism” rather than the attacks on the school system. Just as blacks are on the cusp of political greatness (which includes a possible black woman running for president in the next decade), they are holding themselves back...but that's for Part II...