The University Record, January 25, 1993

Racial division still central element in key civil rights cities

By Terry Gallagher
News and Information Services

In three cities in Alabama that were important in the history of the civil rights movement, those who are old enough to remember life before the movement are stunned by the changes that have taken place, while those too young to remember are dismayed by the persistence of racism, poverty and discrimination.

“Any visitor to these cities, different as they are, finds a generational gap,” as well as a racial gap, in perceptions of what the movement accomplished, according to history Prof. J. Mills Thornton III.

While older Blacks are disappointed in the outcome of their hopes, older whites resent the gains made by Blacks, he said. Younger Blacks, “focusing on the subtler obstacles that persist, fail to see the progress that has been made,” and younger whites perceive the civil rights movement as an “organized and successful” effort by Blacks to gain special advantages, Thornton said.

In a presentation sponsored by the Department of History at the Clements Library last Monday, Thornton discussed the history of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Ala., cities that were pivotal in the growth of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

In each city, the manifestations of the civil rights movement were spurred by local grievances, Thornton said. And Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts focused, at least in the beginning, on remedying these local grievances. In fact, much of what came to be called the civil rights movement was actually a number of movements in a number of cities, “rooted in local affairs,” Thornton noted.

Thornton discussed King’s notions of “the beloved community,” outlined in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

“King believed that the achievement of community meant an end to history, but we know that history doesn’t end; it just grinds on,” Thornton said. “Community only provides the boundaries within which the conflicts of history take place.”

Certainly the histories of Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma show that the struggle for racial equality is not over, Thornton said.

Each city is distinct in terms of its economy, population, political structure and history, but despite their differences, they all have one thing in common today: “racial division is the central element in municipal political life.” Thornton said. “There’s a two-party system in these cities and the two parties are Black and white.”