America was polarized during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Veterans of the movement say the racial backlash they feel today is reminiscent of the backlash they faced in 1968.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Many Americans believe they have never seen their country as divided as it is today. But some with longer memories remember the 1960s. The Vietnam War is widely seen today as a mistake. But opinions were then deeply divided. The civil rights movement is widely hailed today, but it was met with fierce opposition at the time. NPR’s John Burnett examines today’s divisions through the eyes of some veterans of the civil rights movement.
VALDA HARRIS MONTGOMERY: Hi, everyone. First of all, welcome to Montgomery. Second, welcome to Centennial Hill.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: And welcome to the Harris home. The brick and white siding house where Valda Harris Montgomery grew up served as a haven for civil rights legends like John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr.
MONTGOMERY: So if anyone has any questions, let me know.
BURNETT: She’s giving an informal visit to a group of Episcopal seminarians from Austin. The house is a few blocks from the state capitol, where Alabama Governor George Wallace has sworn segregation forever.
MONTGOMERY: This was the most important African-American neighborhood in the 1800s, so it’s going to be filled with black history events, as well as civil rights events.
BURNETT: Inside the house, the third-floor strategy room, as they called it, hasn’t changed from the days – same woodwork, beige couch and stereo system. Montgomery’s mother served spaghetti to movement foot soldiers, like the Freedom Riders, who took buses across the South, chased by white mobs, to integrate interstate transportation. Her father, a pharmacist, brought them antiseptics and bandages if needed. Sixty years later, Harris can’t believe the nation is torn apart again, that we’ve been gripped by each other’s throats again.
MONTGOMERY: We thought we got there in the 70s and 80s. But we’re so filled with hate that I’m just afraid there’s some kind of battle going on. You know, why do you hate Jews? Why do you hate black people? Why do you hate LGBTQ people? How are they threatening you?
BURNETT: Those interviewed for this story, who played roles, major and minor, in the civil rights years, believed that America had moved beyond that.
MONTGOMERY: A lot of my friends, and that’s what it is — not just me, think we’re just reliving the past and we need to make sure our kids and grandkids understand that, that it’s not new .
TAYLOR BRANCH: These things tore the country and the families apart at the time.
BURNETT: Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch is 75. He is writing a new book on the influence of race throughout American history.
BRANCH: I think we’ve always had extremely conflicting issues. Right now what we’re missing – I think we’re missing – is a more cohesive and positive alternative. And that’s what Dr. King and the civil rights movement provided.
BURNETT: Branch says civil rights activists have shown unwavering faith in public trust, just as the nation’s founders did. They believed that this nation’s experience in self-government would replace violence and set us free.
BRANCH: My view is that we are missing both the legacy of the founders of Philadelphia and the legacy of the refounders in the civil rights era by allowing our politics to be so corroded and cynical.
BURNETT: One of the leaders in the fight for racial equality was Bernard Lafayette. He participated in the Freedom Rides, the Selma Suffrage Campaign, and the Nashville Student Lunch Counter sit-ins.
BERNARD LAFAYETTE: I’m an expert on white bad guys. So if you want to know anything about mean white people, you’re looking at the right person.
BURNETT: Sitting majestically at a conference table at Auburn University in Alabama, where he is a visiting scholar, Lafayette, 82, smiles and relishes the question, how would he compare the fault lines of the 1960s with those of the 2020s?
LAFAYETTE: In the 1960s, white people had no desire for black people to rise to political power. So that’s one of the things that’s changed now. I think that today, it scares white people more. They came to the conclusion that other minority groups can take over.
BURNETT: There was American separatism 60 years ago. But it wasn’t red and blue, it was black and white.
HANK SANDERS: In the 60s, we didn’t call it polarization. They called it segregation.
BURNETT: Henry Sanders is a 79-year-old civil rights attorney, former student activist, and retired state senator in Selma, Ala. Sanders, too, was discouraged by the setbacks.
SANDERS: I was one of those people who believed that with the election of President Obama, race relations would improve, because I said, you know, they’ll see that he’s a smart, capable man. He has a wonderful wife and children. I was just shocked that he had the exact opposite reaction.
BURNETT: Police and civilians fired on unarmed black people, the massacre of black worshipers in Charleston and black supermarket shoppers in Buffalo, the last White House courting white nationalism and the Confederate battle flag marched through the Capitol US Jan. 6, new state voting restrictions transparently targeting Democratic-leaning black communities — for veterans of the movement, this is an old story, measurable progress followed by backlash. Clayborne Carson is professor of history emeritus at Stanford University, director of the Martin Luther King Papers Project, and former California civil rights activist. He is sitting in his garden in Palo Alto.
CLAYBORNE CARSON: I don’t think any of us who fought for civil rights and the right to vote in the mid-1960s thought that was going to lead to this huge political change in America and the winners, d in a way, were the people who built their careers on this backlash. I don’t think Richard Nixon would have won in 1968 without this backlash.
BURNETT: Forty-eight years later, Donald Trump would build his movement on a backlash against President Obama.
CARSON: The idea that in the 2020s we would still be fighting for the right to vote just didn’t cross my mind. But here we are.
BURNETT: Here we are back where we started, at the historic Harris House in Alabama. But rather than end on a pessimistic tone, Valda Montgomery says she’s encouraged by everyone who visits her home and wants to know about this little-known story.
MONTGOMERY: Bands that came, people with a purpose. They want to be educated. And the majority of the groups are white groups or mixed groups. People are hungry for real history.
BURNETT: The story, of course, is not over. The country continues to seek that cohesive and positive alternative, as Taylor Branch puts it, that will lift America out of its maelstrom.
John Burnett, NPR News, Montgomery, Ala.
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