Thursday, November 06, 2008
After our historic election, many of us elders are thinking about all the changes we have witnessed in our lifetimes, particularly in the areas of race relations and the position of minorities (including gay and lesbian) in our society.
I was born 80 years ago in a small town in Oklahoma which was an all white town with a "sundown law." This law stated that no one with a single drop of non-white blood could spend the night inside the city limits. This meant that blacks could come in during the day to work as maids or household help, but they had to live elsewhere. Many lived in a small town nearby, most in extreme poverty.
The result was that I saw only a few African-Americans during my childhood, and the ones I saw were the poorest of the poor. The culture was hopelessly racist, and racism was accepted as part of daily life. Everything, including schools, was totally segregated.
When I went away to the University of Oklahoma at age 18 (1946), no black students were allowed to enroll in that institution of "higher" learning. Then, after a lawsuit, one woman (her name was Ada Lois Sipuel) was admitted to the law school. She was allowed to attend classes, but she was not allowed to sit with the other students. Rather, she was placed in a kind of "pen" in the corner of the room, where she sat alone. This courageous woman completed her degree and became a highly successful lawyer.
Then, finally, around l950, the segregation laws were overturned and blacks were admitted to the entire university, but signs sprang up over the water fountains and on some of the restroom doors: "Whites Only." The black students were not allowed to live in the dorms with the others--rather, they were assigned quarters in the "prefabs" south of the campus. (Remember, this was the era when Marian Anderson was prevented from singing in Washington, D. C., by the Daughters of the Revolution, and Leontyne Price could not stay in the same hotels with the rest of her colleagues when they traveled in the American South.)
Then, in the early fifties, the "sit-ins" began. Sympathetic whites began to take places next to blacks in places like the food counters in Woolworth's and other places. Many onlookers were shocked, and thought things had gone too far.
Then, in the sixties, the famous marches and protests took place in Selma and elsewhere. Blacks finally won the vote, but it was still against the law in many places for blacks and whites to marry.
Ultimately, the blacks won their right to vote, to marry whomever they pleased, and to exercise their civil rights in all areas.
But--like many who witnessed and applauded these changes over the years, I did not expect to see an African American elected to the highest office. I was, like many others, thrilled at this turn of events, and felt, again like others, that "if this can happen, anything can happen."
Now, of course, for many of us, the great issue still remaining is that of gay marriage. It is, to say the least, discouraging that many of those who voted to overturn the right of gays to marry (in California) or who contributed money to oppose this right are from those groups who have been themselves so oppressed historically(racial minorities as well as Mormans--the latter reportedly sent millions into California to oppose gay marriage.) However, one of my friends attended a gay marriage ceremony last week where two Morman friends of the couple were there to celebrate with them.
Progress is indeed slow. I can only hope that this right will also be extended to all groups before many more years pass.
But--indeed, thinking again about this election--if this can happen, anything can happen. Unexpected changes are occurring. Who knows what the future holds?