From my perch in Minneapolis, I have watched with horror at the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. I’ve also felt pride as so many Minnesotans peacefully took to the streets demanding justice and spurred a nation and the world to join the struggle.
I have worked for civil rights since the 1950s and have been asked a sobering question: Did we succeed?
My answer: Yes, though our successes were never perfect.
Understanding that imperfect success requires understanding my starting point. What were the 1950s like?
In the South and other parts of America, African-Americans as a population were denied the right to vote, prohibited from living in certain parts of town, faced the barbaric threat of lynching and were prevented from serving in government. The legal system was silent or supportive of these injustices. Equity was hardly imaginable in the face of deep-seated prejudice and hate that denied dignity and basic human rights to people of color.
I arrived in Washington in the 1960s, when millions of Americans organized, protested, endured the sting of repression and voted in new government officials to pass reform. The result was historic: a surge of programs supported by Democrats and Republicans that started to open up America to all of its citizens regardless of skin color, gender and, eventually, sexual orientation.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing. When Medicare was passed in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson insisted that hospitals and other medical providers care for white and black patients and, if Southern states refused, he prepared to mobilize army bases to step in.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discrimination in voting, unleashing sharp increases in the registration, voting and election of people of color. The election of blacks to public office expanded. In Congress, the number rose from six in 1965 to more than 50 today. I was lifted by John McCain’s powerful words in 2008 as he conceded the “historic election” to Barack Obama and praised Obama for “inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans, who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president.”
All of those breakthroughs were hard to imagine when I started to work on civil rights.
It is also true that America remains scarred by unacceptable disparities. But the work and sacrifice of so many have put America in a position to understand the problem: what universal human rights and equity should look like.
The horror over the killing of George Floyd has been felt across America. Even in our time of deep partisan divide, Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed disgust and dismay. When I served in the U.S. Senate, members from the South fundamentally disagreed about the rights owed to African-Americans.
We have won agreement on a simple and profound idea proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence: All people are created equal.
The battle for civil rights is a journey, not an end point. Each generation is tasked with the hard work of serving in the great fight for justice. Our neighbors who took to the streets over the past few weeks have joined a great cause. I thank them.
Walter F. Mondale is a former vice president of the United States and former U.S. senator from Minnesota.