In the United States, February is African American History Month. It's a time to teach the young people about the contributions of African Americans to American culture, to explain to them about the civil rights struggle, and to make sure that nobody, old or young, ever fails to learn the lessons of our history.
This year, some of us want to share the things we've learned worldwide.
The End of Jim Crow
I remember when Jim Crow1 died. It was almost a half-century ago. I was just old enough to understand, perhaps it is time I shared a little of what I saw and remember before we are all gone. Let me pass this small bit to those who have come after and wonder.
I was not born in the South, although as boy I used to say I lived in South Buffalo, NY and that should be close enough. I have, for as long as I can remember, been interested in history. The U.S Civil War had its centennial when I turned 8. I devoured the many books and articles that were published at that time. Without consideration of the deeper political intricacies I immediately sided with the South. It had nothing to do with race or slavery, I little understood either at the time, but more the glory of a lost cause, or an innate understanding of 'States' Rights'.
I grew up in a Polish-Irish neighbourhood, they tolerated each other. My mother's mother's family had lived in central New York State from before the revolution with Britain. Her father was an Irish orphan, a good man who was a rail-road engineer. My father's grandfather was born in London and emigrated to Kingston, Ontario as a young boy. My father's mother, my paternal grandmother, was, I believe, second-generation German. Like many Americans I am a mongrel.
To get back to the point, the one people I did not see in our neighbourhood were Negroes2.
I remember going down-town with my mother to one of her 'lady's clubs3' and seeing my first 'coloured.' face at the department store we visited while we were there. I vaguely remember pointing, and asking too loudly, who or what is that? In the north we were not supposed to notice things like race.
One night in the winter of 1962-1963 my father found himself driving a good portion of the New York State Thruway in a blizzard. He and Mother talked quietly, after we children had been sent to bed they continued into the night.
By morning it was announced that we were moving to Florida. We waited until school was out in late June before we left. The Interstate Highway system was still incomplete back then so we often switched between super-highway and two-lane roads that ran through the main streets of small towns. The first morning we woke up in a small motel on the outskirts of Washington D.C. We had breakfast in a dinner, the food was prepared behind the counter in sight of the public. For the first time in my life I saw my food was being cooked by a Black woman! It seems silly today, but for a young boy in 1963 emerging from the racial separation of the north into the segregation of the south it was a shock.
As the weeks and months followed my family and I established our new home in Florida. Black people and White people lived in a close but divided society. Schools were clearly divided by race. 'Separate but equal' was the official policy, in practice the Black schools got the cast-offs of the White schools. Signs that designated 'White' or 'Coloured' were ubiquitous. Restaurants, waiting-rooms, rest-rooms and even drinking fountains were clearly labelled explaining who was allowed to use them. I was taught to obey the signs as it would upset people in both groups if the lines were crossed.
The first efforts for racial integration had begun. During World War II the N.A.A.C.P. of Florida began the 'Double Vee' campaign, 'Victory over Racism Overseas and Racism at Home'. In Montgomery, Alabama Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to ride in the back of a city bus. In Little Rock, Arkansas the National Guard had been called out to protect 9 Black students who had been allowed to attend a White high school. There was an incident at the lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. A young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. was emerging as a spokesman of racial equality. In most of the south the status quo remained.
In 1960 John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected to the Presidency of the United States. One of his most famous campaign statements was 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'. Among the many things he wished to do was end racial segregation. The opposition in Congress made this impossible in his lifetime.
In the Fall of 1963 President Kennedy made a grand tour of the southern states.
On November 18th he visited Tampa Florida, a few days later on November 22nd he arrived at Dallas, Texas. It was a beautiful morning that turned into tragedy. The gunman not only killed John Kennedy, but he had doomed Jim Crow. Lyndon Baines Johnson assumed the Presidency and began passing the programs that Kennedy had supported. In 1964 the Civil Rights act was signed into law and the signs all came down. Jim Crow was officially dead, and I didn't mourn.
Racial prejudices did not end, they still exist to some, even today, but the official government recognition stopped.