Civil Rights

Dream Interpretation

The March On Washington's enduring legacy

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"I have a dream."

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those famous words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 40 years ago this week. The old civil rights campaigners who gathered in Washington this past weekend to mark the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington focused on what they believe is left to be done—the dreams that are yet to be realized. However, though race is still certainly a troublesome issue in America, many of Dr. King's dreams have come true.

I was only 9 years old when those words were uttered. I grew up on a hardscrabble dairy farm in the Appalachian mountain country in Washington County, Virginia, in the still segregated South. Blacks were required to watch movies from balconies in the theatres in Bristol Virginia. (As a kid I wanted to sit there, it seemed so cool to be high up and looking down.) I confess that I don't recall things like separate waiting rooms at bus stations or public drinking fountains. That's probably because I didn't get off the farm much and possibly because I was simply clueless.

What did change in Washington County in 1963 was that our public schools integrated. As I recall there was no great drama about it. Not necessarily because the whites of Washington County were so racially enlightened, but more likely because our county had so few black residents. Nevertheless, we started school as usual in September and there were a couple of new black kids in my 3rd grade class at Meadowview Elementary School. The black school down near Bristol was closed and the black kids simply went to the school closest to their homes. That was it. Unfortunately, that was not the case in the rest of Virginia.

The 1950s and early 1960s were the era of "Massive Resistance" in Virginia when state and local governments fought to prevent the integration of public schools. Most infamously, Prince Edward County closed all its schools in 1959 rather than integrate. The Prince Edward County schools remained shut for five years until a Federal Court ordered them reopened in 1964. But times have changed for the better. Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution officially expressing "profound regret" over the closing of those schools. In June, in an attempt to make amends for past injustices, some 400 people were awarded honorary high school diplomas from Prince Edward County. It can't make up for what happened then, but at least the injustice has been recognized.

My home state, Virginia also figured prominently in another repulsive racial injustice—the prohibition of interracial marriages. Virginia was not alone; at one time 30 states had laws prohibiting "miscegenation." In 1958, a white man named Richard Loving married a black woman, Mildred Jeter, in the District of Columbia. When they returned home to Virginia, Ms. Loving was arrested. Under a 1922 anti-miscegenation law, black and white couples could be sent to prison for 1 to 5 years. It took until 1967 for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Virgnia's statute forbidding interracial marriages in Loving v. Virginia. America is not yet a racial melting pot, but the rate of interracial marriages continues to rise, with the percentage of mixed race marriages increasing from 4.4 percent in 1990 to 6.7 percent in 2000.

Again, not assuming that Washington County was a paradise of racial harmony, it is still worth noting that by the time I was a senior in high school in the antediluvian year of 1972, our predominantly white school elected a black student, Geraldine Logan, as our one and only Homecoming Queen. (I loathe the custom of having black and white Homecoming Courts-it smacks all too readily of the old "separate but equal" standards.)

The King speech also lent momentum to two of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation in American history, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act outlawed state-sanctioned and enforced racial discrimination in the form of Jim Crow laws. For example, it allowed blacks to come down out of that theatre balcony in Bristol Virginia. The Voting Rights Act insured that Southern blacks who were being systematically denied the franchise by corrupt voter registration officials would have access to the ballot box.

Sure, these laws are not perfect. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act has been interpreted as authorizing the creation of affirmative action programs. This despite the fact that Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-MN) declared specifically that Title VII "would prohibit preferential treatment for any particular group," and famously promised that if this turned out to be wrong that he would eat the pages on which the statute was printed. I wonder if the Senator would have liked the pages sautéed or with a nice béchamel? And yes, the Voting Rights Act has led to "racial gerrymandering." Still, we are a far better, and fairer country because of those laws.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the only remaining speaker from the 1963 march, told the Washington Post, "I wish Dr. King could see the progress that we have made, see the distance that we have come."