Unfinished Business

Social Sciences6 MIN READ
June 5, 2020

Robert Weisbrot, the Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History and coauthor of The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s, traces the very direct line between the Civil Rights Era and today’s racial unrest. Weisbrot spoke with Editorial Director Gerry Boyle ’78.

As you follow today’s situation, do you think we’re entering into another Civil Rights Movement?

It’s a profound question. I feel that African-Americans have been struggling for rights, going back to before there was a United States, and at times it reaches a sort of critical mass before it gets national attention. But the root problems have remained, and the struggle has remained. Will this have a comparable sustained impact to what culminated in the 1960s? I think that remains to be seen.

What are the factors that will be in play?

As Americans we rediscover poverty, and we periodically rediscover the role of race. But the concrete changes have often been so much less impactful than this sudden burst of awakening. Does this mean that the horror over white racism endures? Does it translate into sustained consciousness about white racism? And does it spill over into institutional changes that are far-reaching and lasting?

What do you think?

We’re really just at the beginning of this, where the atrocities are so pronounced and the media conveys them so rapidly and so universally. You know you’re asking a historian, but we just have to see. There are already very substantial differences, and not necessarily good differences, with what happened in the 1960s. In June of 1963, when racial tensions were really peaking, President [John F.] Kennedy went on national television to propose a comprehensive Civil Rights Bill. And the speech, to my mind, was as significant as the bill itself that he was proposing. He said that the nation had to confront a moral issue that was as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. And he said that the turmoil arising from racial discrimination could not be “met by repressive police action,” but only by the efforts of Congress, and state, and local governments, and private citizens to see “that all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities.” He said the nation could no longer tell blacks to be “content with the counsels of patience and delay,” nor could we tell each other that the country “has no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes.” And when you think about those lines and those ideas, two things spring to my mind. One is we’re still struggling with the same problems and, two, the personality, the temperament, the values of the occupant of the White House matter.

And that preceded the march on Washington, D.C., in 1963.

It’s interesting because Kennedy was very afraid that the march could lead to violence. And he tried to discourage the march. But when the march occurred and it was nonviolent and it was harmonious and it was celebratory, Kennedy welcomed the leaders into the White House to share warm encouragement and hot coffee. And again, you had the sense that the federal government, or at least critical aspects of it, were informally allied with the Civil Rights Movement. They were aligned around the idea of recognizing inequality and taking steps to redress it.

So here we are, marching again. It seems the situation hasn’t changed much.

I actually have to think about that. My first instinct was to disagree strongly, but there’s a sense in which what you say is profoundly true, that there was entrenched racism in the 60s, and there’s entrenched racism today. And so on that basis, we can say things haven’t changed much. But as a historian, I look for change over time. And to me, the changes over time have been vast. We don’t have to celebrate an end to racism because clearly that hasn’t occurred. We have to recognize that it remains with us. It’s embedded in the society. We still have to confront it as a nation.

But on the other hand…

Things have changed so greatly as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. We no longer have a legalized caste system based on race, sanctioned by the nation’s highest court, sanctioned by the other institutions of government, sanctioned by state laws. Yes, things are in many ways dreadful now, but they were much worse 60 years ago, and still worse 75 years ago.

And the root causes remain?

The advantage of studying history is that it enables us to see that these aren’t merely incidents; they’re part of a wider pattern. And it’s not just a pattern for 2020. It’s a pattern that is embedded in centuries of American history. And the details change, but the pattern, which is centered on white racism, endures. It doesn’t mean that nothing can change. It doesn’t mean that the nation can’t rouse itself and redress these issues. And it has, but much remains to be done.

If you go back to 1964, the Civil Rights Act is enacted. The people who had worked so hard for that moment must have been gratified that they had succeeded. And yet their expectations of what that would produce in terms of society have not been met.

You know what’s so interesting, the great landmark was August 1965 because there was one more great Civil Rights Act, and that was the Voting Rights Act which also took protests by blacks and white allies and culminated with a great march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965. And [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] gave another speech that was in many ways comparable in eloquence and impact to his speech at the March on Washington a year-and-a-half before. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill into law on August 6, and public officials rejoiced, but August 11 was the start of a six-day race riot in Watts. And many of the civil rights leaders—it’s not that they didn’t know the problems, but it hit them in a visceral way that, yes, you can have legislation passed. But this goes deeper than legislation because millions of blacks were still trapped in poverty, in squalor, they lacked opportunity, they faced rampant prejudice, not just in a particular region, but throughout the country. And for these civil rights leaders, who had been celebrating less than a week before in Washington, D.C., there was this intensified realization that the country was still going through an ordeal based on the deep effects of prejudice and the persistence of prejudice.

And that’s where we are now.

I think that the most important awakening has to be that we as a nation still have a problem. And it’s entrenched white racism. I don’t really find much use in individual self-flagellation. A lot of these issues are structural. Are we prepared to acknowledge the problem? And to act to change it?

So where do you hope we’ll be in a year, or even five?

Where I hope we’ll be is to have a more sustained awareness that for all our virtues as a democratic society, we also face challenges in treating African-Americans with the same respect as all other Americans. They’re not the only group that suffers from prejudice, from discrimination, from entrenched inequalities. But they have been, as a group, victimized for hundreds of years. And that victimization persists. And we need to acknowledge that and comprehensively address and redress it.