The University Record, January 24, 1994

Panelists maintain that racial segregation is still a fact of life

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

At lunch counters, drinking fountains and restrooms; on sidewalks, buses and trains; in schools, parks and motels; in the armed forces; on the job; and at the ballot box, racial segregation in America was a fact of life ... and still is.

“We were struggling to challenge racism at its roots,” says Hardy Frye, a civil rights organizer in the 1960s and now a professor of social welfare at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “In general, racism was not only attacked, its legal status was eliminated. But I’ll be the first to admit that ‘de facto’ segregation remains today.”

In a Symposium panel discussion evaluating the civil rights movement in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Frye said that civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s achieved their goals—equal voting rights and access to public accommodations for all Americans.

“However, we didn’t have a thorough enough appreciation or understanding of the social structures that maintained racial domination,” said Frye, who once spent six months in jail for ordering a cup of coffee. “We thought if we changed attitudes and various laws, the barriers to social mobility for African Americans would be removed. Well, we were wrong, there’s no doubt about it. We can see it today.”

Adrien K. Wing, professor of law at the University of Iowa, said that if it weren’t for people like Frye, Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists, many people would not have access to “the elite institutions in this society, whether they be in academia, business, law or elsewhere.

“Despite whatever flaws and weaknesses the movement had, we have to acknowledge the incredible determination, foresight and courage of the men and women, young and old, Black and white, doing things that, to young people today, don’t even seem believable—like going to prison over a cup of coffee or for sitting at a lunch counter,” Wing said.

William Alexander, a member of the Michigan Commission on Aging, said that tactics such as peaceful protests and civil disobedience used by civil rights marchers were effective.

“The people who took King’s orders and followed them—no violence, no immorality, no bloodshed, no criminal acts—were so well organized that whites could do nothing but [resort to] intimidation,” he said.

But Wing, who sees the challenge of the 21st century as “the problem of ethnic, not color, lines,” believes civil rights activism in the 1990s and beyond cannot rely solely on such tactics.

“Peaceful protest is based on the fundamental notion that your opponent can be moved, morally, religiously or psychologically, by the fact that you are being beaten or attacked,” she said. “That fundamental premise worked and does work even today, to a certain degree. But if your opponent has no morality and no conscience, and doesn’t mind if you are literally exterminated, then peaceful protest won’t work.”

Wing believes that future civil rights movements will differ from the movement of King’s time in other ways:

  • Many leaders from all walks of life will be required, rather than a male-dominated, cult-like leadership.

  • Political rights will continue to be emphasized, but more candidates worth voting for need to be identified.

  • A narrow notion of civil rights must encompass broader economic, social and cultural “second generation” human rights.

  • Acculturation, not assimilation, will be an objective.

  • The relationship of ethnicity, gender and class will undergo more complex analysis.

    Frye believes that the success of the past civil rights movement has helped pave the way for today’s activists.

    “The younger generation must understand that they cannot shirk their responsibility by suggesting that the goals we fought for were not significant enough,” he said. “Just like I could not shirk the responsibility of a Frederick Douglass, a Medgar Evers or a Malcolm X and everybody else who went before me. And I certainly could not shirk the responsibility of a Martin Luther King.”