Never Say We Haven’t Made Progress


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 Feb. 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 provided the following comparisons:

INCOME

1963:
$22,266 (in 2011 dollars)
The median family income for blacks was 55 percent of the median income for all American families.

$25,826 and $14,651 (in 2011 dollars)
Median income of black men and black women who worked full time, year-round

2011
$40,495
The median family income for the Black-alone population was 66 percent of the median income for all American families

$40,273 and $35,146
Median income of single-race black men and black women who worked full time, year-round.

POVERTY

1966
41.8percent
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 percent.

2011
27.6 percent
Poverty rate for single-race Blacks. Nationally, the poverty rate for all races was 15 percent.

HOUSING

1970
41.6 percent
Homeownership rate for Blacks (the earliest this information is available for race).

2011
43.4 percent
Homeownership rate for Blacks.

HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION

1964
25.7 percent
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.

2012
85.0 percent
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

1964
234,000
Number of Black undergraduate college students.

3.9 percent
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.

2012
2.6 million
Number of Black undergraduate college students in 2011 — More than 10 times as many as 1964.

21.2percent
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).

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Never Say We Haven't Made Progress

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