We changed the laws and had some progress. But the attitude that we, black people, are somehow less than [others] is deeply etched into the fabric of society. We have not yet changed many of those attitudes, hearts and minds. And that keeps our people from being fully emancipated.
Little: There has been progress, no doubt about it. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina in an apartheid-like situation. I’ve lived deep discrimination and now … now my little hometown has a black mayor! The president [Obama] is progress.
I never believed we were in a “postracial” society. We cannot fold our books and say this is it. There is still a need for the Urban Leagues and NAACPs. They and white organizations that helped us took part in making change — progress in the past didn’t happen by osmosis.
We still need to work on getting jobs and good education for our people. It’s a gradual process that no single thing can solve.
Johnson: I never believed I’d live long enough to see a black president elected. And I also didn’t think I’d live to see members of Congress in whom supremacy was so deeply ingrained that they’d rather take down America than support a black president.
I’m saddened and disappointed by that. With all the hope and optimism we had after the march in ’63, I didn’t realize at that time that changing laws wouldn’t be enough. Racism was very carefully taught and justified; it is deeply etched into the fabric of American society.
I was so hopeful when the president was elected … that young black men would look at him and see a future for themselves. But when they watch and see how even the president is disrespected … they have to ask themselves what difference will it make if I work hard?
When we could look at laws that denied opportunity we could say that if we change the laws … if we get an education, a job, etc. … things would be different and we depended upon that. Now we find there are other ways we can be denied and you begin to think that it wasn’t just the laws. It’s the way people are treated, the deeply ingrained attitudes that are barriers. It’s so complex.
That’s a troubling environment. It’s not a comfortable feeling at age 82 to have hoped for so long that we’d get there. Now I’m not so sure that we will.
On continuing the cause of the march in our time:
Johnson: Education continues to be key — for everyone. We need to help people understand why they feel the way they do about us. We must work to help this country unlearn what it was so carefully taught about who we are.
I’ve said that America has become a fast-food society that doesn’t know how to read and consider a menu. One that wants everything now and doesn’t do much critical thinking. Lies can be told and people don’t challenge them. There is a belief system that has gotten away from truth … and democracy.
That’s been a weight on my heart. Why there hasn’t been more joyful reaction to what the president has done relative to our belief in democracy?
I just pray and work and support the best I can the effort to keep the struggle before us. We cannot let our guard down. We have not reached that point, and I’m afraid it will be a while before we do.
Little: Are there things we need to do within our own communities? Absolutely. But when it is said that the problems of the community are only cultural, I view that as an excuse.
We can do both at the same time — work internally on our communities and fight against discrimination from the wider community.
Just as I have seen progress in my lifetime, there will be more progress in the next 50 years. The battle goes on. When I get discouraged, I think back to that day in 1963 and it gives me courage to go forward.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.