Friday, February 11, 2011

A Fight Against “Separate But Equal” 150 Years Ago and Today

Black History Month brings back memories of the civil rights movement, of admiring the bravery of black high school students no older than me who walked through hostile mobs to integrate formerly all-white high schools in the 1950s.

Later, in college, I marched in support of those who had the courage to sit-in for equal treatment at lunch counters, and in support of Freedom Riders and volunteers helping African-Americans register to vote – some of whom, white as well as black, gave up their lives in the cause of equality.

In 1963, along with hundreds of thousands of fellow marchers, my husband and I stood on the Mall to listen to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. trumpet out, “I have a dream” of equality and justice. Black and white, old and young were there together but, if memory serves, young people were in the majority.

Like many others -- both those who lived through those decades and those who read about them in history books – I look back on them as the birth of the civil rights movement. I’d known, of course, that the civil rights organization NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had been founded early in the 20th Century. And I also knew – because years ago I read the autobiography of the famed fugitive and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – that Douglass had refused to submit meekly to unequal treatment in places of public accommodation.

But it wasn’t until I was doing research for my first novel, As Far as Blood Goes, the story of a fugitive slave who becomes a doctor, that I learned how widespread the struggle for equality in Northern cities was, even while slavery still thrived in the South. My fictional protagonist escaped to Boston, Massachusetts, and while researching I was lucky enough to discover the historical work, Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton.

Among the struggles detailed by the Hortons was a boycott by black parents against the inferior segregated schools that African-American students in Boston were then forced to attend. The fight to integrate public schools started in 1844 and included petitioning the Boston Primary School Committee to end school segregation and – when that committee declined to integrate the schools – a suit brought against the city, argued by Charles Sumner.

Sumner’s argument that inequality was an inherent outcome of separate schools was rejected by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in a decision that served as a precedent for the infamous 1896 US Supreme Court Plessy v. Ferguson decision upholding the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

But after eleven years of boycotting the school provided for black children (with an alternative school set up in an African-American church and taught by a black minister and other African-Americans) a lobbying effort directed toward the Massachusetts state legislature was successful in getting a bill passed abolishing separate schools in the state. It was signed into law in April 1855, just short of 100 years before the US Supreme Court abolished “separate but equal” in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

The information above is a summary of the much fuller account I found in Black Bostonians (and which I’ve since also found through searches on the Internet), and necessarily both simplifies and leaves out much of this history. But it left me with a deep appreciation of the struggles of earlier generations, not just my own.

 The 1954 Supreme Court decision ended all legal justification for “separate but equal” schools. But the fight for full equality and against “separate but equal” has moved to a new arena – that of equal marriage rights. In many states, including the neighboring state of Maryland, civil rights activists are arguing against setting up a separate category of civil unions rather than extend the right to a legal civil marriage to all.

I agree wholeheartedly with these activists – a separate category for those not quite “good enough” to marry would be inherently unequal. 

1 comment:

  1. Well reasoned and an interesting commentary.