Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele said he once told his sons that their White friends may think like them and share the same interests, but if they were stopped by police, that they would be singled out.
“He’s going to look at you differently than he will look at your White friends in the car,” Steele said he explained to his sons. His sons weren’t convinced, then the Trayvon Martin case happened.
“I think it brought home to them the idea that the work that has gone before, profoundly important, changed a whole heck of a lot, but its different now,” Steele said. “The drumbeat of racism is different. It’s quieter. It’s less in your face. Where you see it now is the redlining of neighborhoods. Where you see it now is getting job applications through the system, through profiling and other things.”
Steele’s comments were part of a panel discussion Nov. 7 entitled “A Path to Equality: The Impact of the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s” at the National Archives, sponsored by the archives and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress.
Other panelists included Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), former U.S. Senators Carol Moseley Braun, one of only two Blacks elected to the U.S. Senate during the 20th century and Robert James “Jim” Jones, the former appointments secretary to President Johnson; and Charles D. Ferris, who served as chief counsel to then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield during the debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The panelists agreed that much has been accomplished in race relations since the CRA and VRA were passed. They also agreed that more needs to be done.
“While we achieved an end to segregation, we did not achieve integration really, so our society is still very divided, both in terms of economic integration and social integration,” Braun said.
She cited as examples “the fact that minority students are more likely not to graduate from high school, more likely to be in schools that are underfunded, more likely not to get educational opportunities, are less likely to have the opportunity to start businesses or be in businesses, have less access to capital.”
Norton talked about the night before the March on Washington in 1963 and how she was tasked to take phone calls in Harlem to assist people who needed transportation to the march. As the plane flew over Washington, she can remember seeing the people in huddles all over the city.
“At one point they just began to march,” Norton said, adding that leaders had to run to the front of the line.
Some national politicians were worried about the movement.
“[Some] were so fearful they tried to discourage the march,” Norton said. “There were a few people who came from the South who opposed the march. They were so few they never got to the march,” Norton said.
Ferris remembered the transformation of the mindset of lawmakers after the march.
“It changed the character of the dialogue,” he said. “It wasn’t ‘us versus them.’ It didn’t change southern senators, but it made them realize that a dialogue was going to take place.”
Steele recalled his inauguration as Maryland’s first Black lieutenant governor.
“Standing on the steps of our state capital looking out at this crowd of people and understanding on whose shoulders I was standing was very powerful,” he said.
“But do you know what the most poignant moment was for me? Knowing and realizing that literally less than a mile behind me, at the Annapolis Harbor, Kunte Kinte was brought to this country as a slave. That linkage was a very powerful arc that has tied me, bound me to this journey of civil rights in the modern era. That arc is still a very viable link.”