Selma, Ala., the county seat of Dallas County, was a bastion of White supremacy in 1965. At the time, of the 15,000 potential Black voters, only 300 were registered. In response to chants of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ by civil rights protesters, Sheriff Jim Clark wore a button on his uniform declaring, ‘Never.’
That did not stop Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close aide of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and workers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from leading daily marches to the courthouse in an effort to register Blacks. On February 5, 1965, Clark blocked the entrance to the courthouse with his deputies.
“If we’re wrong, why don’t you arrest us?” Vivian said.
Instead of arresting Vivian, Clark hit him so hard in the face that he fractured a finger. After being knocked down the steps, a bloodied C.T. Vivian rose to his feet and said, “We’re willing to be beaten for democracy, and you misuse democracy in this street. You beat people bloody in order that they will not have the privilege to vote.”
Vivian and other activists persisted. Though John Lewis and others were pummeled by Clark’s deputies and Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday,’ Blacks did overcome after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When Sheriff Clark sought re-election in predominantly Black Dallas County in 1966, newly empowered Black voters said “Never” and kicked him out of office.
Surely, President Obama had Vivian and others like him in mind when he said at the Aug. 28 commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington: “To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest as some sometimes do, that little has changed—that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years…”
Obama recently announced that he is awarding Vivian, one of the most courageous figures of the Civil Rights Movement, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Vivian joins other movement veterans, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (posthumously), James L. Farmer, Dorothy Height, John Lewis, Benjamin L. Hooks, Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Joseph Lowery, Clarence Mitchell, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin (posthumously), Roy Wilkins, Andrew Young and Marian Wright Edelman in receiving the distinguished honor.
Because so much work still needs to be done, sometimes we neglect to stand back and appreciate just how much America has changed in the past 50 years.
The Census Bureau has provided the following comparisons:
$22,266 (in 2011 dollars) — median family income for Blacks was 55% of the median income for all American families.
$25,826 and $14,651 (in 2011 dollars) — median income of Black men and Black women working full time, year-round
$40,495 — median family income for the Black-alone population was 66% of the median income for all American families
$40,273 and $35,146 — median income of single-race Black men and Black women working full time, year-round
41.8% — poverty rate for Blacks (1966 is the closest year these statistics are available to the historic speech); nationally, the poverty rate for all races was 14.7%
27.6% — poverty rate for single-race Blacks; nationally, the poverty rate for all races was 15%
41.6% — homeownership rate for Blacks (the earliest this information is available for race)
43.4% — homeownership rate for Blacks
High school graduation
25.7% — percentage of Blacks age 25 and over who completed at least four years of high school
2.4 million — number of Blacks 25 and over with at least four years of high school
85% — percentage of Blacks age 25 and over who completed at least four years of high school
20.3 million — number of Blacks 25 and over with at least a high school diploma
College students and graduates
234,000 — number of Black undergraduate college students
3.9% — percent of Blacks age 25 and over who completed at least four years of college
365,000 — number of Blacks who had at least a bachelor’s degree
2.6 million — number of Black undergraduate college students in 2011 — more than 10 times as many as 1964
21.2% — percent of Blacks age 25 and over who completed at least four years of college
5.1 million — number of Blacks who had at least a bachelor’s degree
Yes, we have made progress as a direct result of the modern Civil Rights Movement. And instead of denying that fact (preferring to see the glass as half empty instead of half full) we should celebrate that progress. Let it be proof that with our efforts, we can continue to make progress over another 50 years.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his website, <www.georgecurry. com>.