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Blacks endured horrible treatment during 100 years of segregation

SALEM, Ore. (BP)–“You’re a good boy,” the genteel 92-year-old woman said with just a trace of weariness in her voice as she smiled gently and patted her bus driver on the hand. It was the end of a long summer day her group had spent touring Oregon’s Willamette Valley farmlands.

The driver’s jaw twitched, but he let the unintended insult pass. He hadn’t heard her speak earlier of moving to the West from her native North Carolina in the early 1920s, but he didn’t need to. In his early 60s, the bus driver was old enough to remember when it was commonplace to call even elderly men “boy” — if they were of African descent.

Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and even more recently, it was commonly thought that people of African ancestry reached the extent of their intellectual capabilities by the time they were 12 to 15. Men were called “boy” and women, “Missy” — either to ridicule or to remind them of their once-subservient role and the needed to be cared for.

Michael Laney, now associate professor of telecommunications and director of the Lee University’s communication & the arts department in Cleveland, Tenn., wanted to take the “college prep” academic track in high school. His guidance counselor told him he couldn’t, that genetically he didn’t have the mental capacity for college. The year: 1974.

People of African descent also were thought to have just a thin veneer of civilization, behind which was an unbridled jungle savagery that knew neither right nor wrong, but only “I want. I take,” according to a physician’s 1865 book that touted the supremacy of the white race.

Women were said to lose all interest in their offspring once they were weaned, the book said, in the same way that a bird shoves its offspring out of the nest and expects it to learn on the way down how to fly. What might a woman be capable of, if she didn’t care more than that for her own child?

During the early 1980s, a young woman from Montana lived off-campus while a student at Oklahoma Baptist University. She invited a friend over to study for an exam. A scant minute after the friend left, a knock was heard on the door.

It was the 75-year-old landlady, trembling with fear. She’d been watching the apartment the whole time from behind her kitchen curtain, she said. She made her tenant promise to never again bring a “colored” person on the property.

“You just never know what they’ll do,” she said, her voice shaking.

“But she’s just a girl,” the student protested.

“She probably has brothers,” the landlady said. “I know you don’t understand. You didn’t live through that time. We were all afraid for our lives.”

There doesn’t seem to be much historical evidence to support a white woman’s fear of people of African descent, but J.H. Van Evrie, a physician, postulated a reason for it in the 1865 book, “White Supremacy and Negro Subordination.”

“The negro, forced from his normal condition [inferior to white] and into unnatural relation to the white man [equality], must relapse into his African habits,” Van Evrie wrote, at which time “civilization itself will utterly perish, and the great heart of the continent be surrendered to African savagism!”

In other words, beyond protecting their womenfolk from what they saw as the barely restrained sensuality of men with an African ancestry, and seeking retribution for the unwarranted and ill-founded demands for equality that had “caused” the Civil War and the South’s abject defeat, some whites felt the need to protect the nation from their fears of anarchy and destruction.

They did so from the 1860s to the 1960s. They did so with a series of segregationist laws, racist social customs, and burning crosses designed to keep people of African descent feeling inferior, afraid and “in their place.”

Between 1918 and 1921, “racial hatred had escalated into open warfare between American blacks and whites, but it was a war that Negroes could never win,” wrote Tim Madigan in a penetrating series on racism that appeared in the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram last October. “Whole communities of blacks in Chicago, East St. Louis, Mo., Tulsa, Okla., and other places were overrun and occasionally obliterated by marauding whites.

“Across the South, hundreds of blacks were strung up — some in the Army uniforms they had worn during World War I — for crimes usually more imagined than real,” Madigan continued. “The worst atrocities tended to happen in the Deep South – 1,633 lynchings [between 1900 and 1921] — 1,258 of them against blacks.”

It was the lynching of veterans after World War II, and the blinding and crippling of others, that galvanized President Harry S. Truman in 1946 to establish a civil rights committee that laid the groundwork for Truman in 1948 to formally integrate the military and the federal civil service.

Michael Gardner, in “Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks,” recounted that the president wrote to his attorney general, Tom Clark, in September 1946 to ask about an incident in South Carolina where a “negro Sergeant, who had been discharged from the Army just three hours, was taken off the bus and not only seriously beaten but his eyes deliberately put out, and the Mayor of the town had bragged about committing this outrage.”

The sheriff was arrested at the attorney general’s instruction and, within two months, brought to trial, where the sheriff admitted using excess force on the uniformed vet that resulted in one eye being gouged out and the other too damaged to use. An all-white jury deliberated 30 minutes and found the sheriff not guilty.

“Their history as a nation within a nation left most black people with both a deep sense of alienation from the society of their birth and an intense longing for full and equal citizenship,” wrote Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin in “America Divided.” “They demanded equality under the law — to be judged as individuals and not as members of a minority race.”

A few pages later, Isserman and Kazin noted that “most white southerners had always treated black people as their social inferiors and saw no reason to change. … When greeting a white person, black southerners were expected to avert their eyes. … A large number of fiercely guarded prohibitions and exclusions defined the Jim Crow order. Whites and blacks were not supposed to drink or dine together, in private homes or in restaurants. They did not attend the same schools or churches or live in the same neighborhoods. Public toilets and drinking fountains were restricted by race. And in nearly every industry, there were strict lines dividing ‘white’ jobs from ‘black’ ones.”

How did all this get started?

First there was slavery — more than 250 years of it; at least 14 generations of it.

As early as the 1660s, laws were written that restricted the liberty of slaves. The 1776 Declaration of Independence — that all men are created equal — apparently did not include slaves because slavery was legal in each of the 13 founding states.

Slaves were considered property, valued in Article I of the U.S. Constitution at three-fifths the worth of a citizen, for taxation purposes. The Constitution became the law of the land in 1788.

Countless books have been written on the innumerable indignities heaped on people of African descent who lived and worked and suffered beatings and family breakups at the whims of their masters. But worse times were coming.

“[F]rom 1820 down to the time of the Civil War nearly one out of every two people in the Black Belt — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana — was slave,” wrote Leslie Howard Owens in “This Species of Property.” “In South Carolina in 1850, 57.6 percent of the total population was slave.”

Just as Pharoah in the Bible turned the whole of his government against the growing Israelite “problem,” so the U.S. legal system was used in the 1800s. In 1857, the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott case, ruled that Americans of African descent — whether slave or free — were not citizens and did not have civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln was elected president three years later. Over the following five months, 11 southern states left the Union. The first shots of the Civil War rang out in April 1861 at Fort Sumter, S.C.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — announced after a major Union victory — freed only the slaves in those states that did not surrender. None of the states surrendered. By default, then, all slaves in those states were freed as of Jan. 1, 1863.

Congress passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution banning slavery. The amendment became law in December 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s assassination and the Confederate army’s surrender.

Then came Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 which, that same year, was underscored by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting states from depriving citizens of their rights. The 15th Amendment in 1869 protected voting rights of all citizens.

But even as lawmakers codified a social order that had radically changed seemingly overnight, people struggled to live in it. What was proper? What was expeditious? What was tolerable?

“African Americans enjoyed a period when they were allowed to vote, actively participate in the political process, acquire the land of former owners, seek their own employment, and use public accommodations,” according to African American Odyssey’s website. “Opponents of this progress, however, soon rallied against the former slaves’ freedom….

“The vote proved elusive and civil rights began to vanish through court action,” the website continues. “Lynching, racial violence, and slavery’s twin children — peonage and sharecropping — arose as deadly quagmires on the path to full citizenship. After Reconstruction ended in 1877, the federal government virtually turned a deaf ear to the voice of the African American populace.”

The civil rights of people of African descent were systematically removed through one court action after another.

African Americans were expected to “know their place” and not be “uppity.” Separate water fountains, restaurants, hotels, significantly lower wages, ridicule and disrespect were the norm. Eye contact could trigger a beating, rape or worse.

“A century of systematic racial exclusion and discrimination, and disfranchisement in the South, followed nearly 250 years of slavery,” wrote Michael Keith Honey in “African-American Workers Remember,” published in 1999.

The “system” also relegated African Americans to “their own” churches, some of which became prominent, including Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., from which Martin Luther King Jr. rose to national prominence during the 1950s and ’60s.

The us/them separation of the races was not only convenient and comfortable — for some whites, anyway — it was the law. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court legitimized the principle of “separate but equal” with its Plessey v. Ferguson decision regarding separate rail car accommodations.

The Supreme Court took that a step further with their 1899 decision that affirmed Anglo-only schools without requiring comparable schools for African Americans.

Regardless of society’s restrictions, care and concern for African Americans was expressed repeatedly in resolutions and reports during various SBC annual meetings.

“In my travels over the Southern Baptist Convention I have talked with many leaders, Caucasian and colored, and all agree that the best way for us to help the Negroes is for us to help train their leaders who can do far more with their own people than we can do for them,” wrote Guy Bellamy in 1951 in his Report on Negro Work, which was part of the then-Home Mission Board’s report to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Their own people” is a particularly repugnant phrase to people of African descent today, said James Coffee, a Southern Baptist pastor in Santa Rosa, Calif., who keeps his congregation and his community focused on reconciliation of blacks and whites. To blacks, inherent in the concept of “separate” is “you’re not good enough to be included,” he explained.

The us/them way of whites relating to blacks came to a head in 1995 at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Southern Baptist Convention’s founding. Two years in the development, a formal apology was made by the SBC to African Americans for the denomination “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.”

Baptist Press, in a June 21, 1995, article, noted, “The resolution is not the first stance against racism adopted by the SBC, the most recent being 1989, but it is the first to address African Americans specifically and the first to confront the slavery issue in the SBC’s history.”

More than the apology, it was the response of the messengers at the SBC the following year to a report on the arson burnings of numerous black churches that got the attention of African American congregations across the nation.

“There was a spontaneous response from the convention floor that netted more than $700,000 for the arson fund,” said Sid Smith, the Florida Baptist Convention’s director of African American ministries. “It represents a genuine outpouring of concern and care.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction and that, to me, is the valuable thing that we need to capture, recognize and share with people rather than the problems of racism,” Smith said. “We know they still exist in some places and with some people, but to me the encouraging part of the story is that we are making progress, and that’s the good news.”