Last Sunday was a beautiful day – not just here, but in Selma, Alabama, and across the nation as America celebrated the struggle to live up to our Constitution’s declaration that we are all created equal.
It is a struggle we may never finish, but recalling the events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge reminds us how much progress can be made by people willing to take bold risks and make great sacrifices. As President Obama said in his speech last Sunday, the marchers on that bridge “gave courage to millions. They held no elected office. But they led a nation.”
Their leadership inspired and accelerated civil rights struggles for women, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians. It changed our nation profoundly. Yet we scarcely recognize how much we all benefited from the spark struck by the African-American pioneers of the civil rights movement.
That movement led not only to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but also to President Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, declaring the need for “affirmative action” to hire women and minorities of every hue in thousands of jobs and professions from which they had long been completely excluded.
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Television and radio news, for example, had long been an all-male, all-white domain. Some industry executives were stunned by the requirement to hire women and minorities. They were sure that only white men had the authority to be newscasters, and that people of color or women could never be taken seriously in those roles. Half a century later, that idea seems utterly absurd.
Women, and especially white women, were particular beneficiaries of the civil rights pioneers. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, also inspired by the African-American civil rights movement, prohibited job discrimination based on sex as well as race.
At the time of its passage, newspapers all across the country listed job openings separately for men and women. (Yes, in those days, that’s how people looked for jobs – in the classified sections of newspapers.) Today, when young women hear this, they are often incredulous. How, they ask, was it decided which jobs went in the men’s column, and which in the women’s? They cannot even imagine the systematic discrimination their grandmothers faced.
But it isn’t just those who’ve faced discrimination who ought to be grateful to the pioneers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. All of us live in a better country because of their courage – a country more open to change; a country more honest with itself about its flaws and challenges; a country that recognizes both the progress we’ve made and the enormous obstacles to full equality we still face.
We wonder, at this 50-year mark, what we are doing now that our country might celebrate in five more decades. And we note the sad irony that while the civil rights movement led to vast new freedoms for many sectors of our society, African-Americans still live with the heavy burdens of history and persistent discrimination. As John Legend noted in his recent Oscars speech, there are almost twice as many African-American men in jail or on probation as there were male slaves in 1850 — about 1.68 million prisoners compared to about 873,000 slaves.
That speaks volumes about the challenges we still face. What the protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge made clear – and what the abolitionist movement also made clear over a century earlier – is that moral progress is possible, and it is up to all of us to make it. We’ve got work to do.