Parallels seen between civil rights and gun violence

Allan Smyth /

Thank you to The Bulletin for your fine tribute to Myrlie Evers-Williams, a Bend resident for 25 years. Her first husband, Medgar Evers, was gunned down on their driveway by a KKK sympathizer in 1963.

The current furor against reasonable firearms regulation reminds me of the long decades of struggle against racism in our country. I recently spent eight happy post-retirement years as a maintenance supervisor for three Dick’s Sporting Goods stores in Raleigh, N.C. I found that our employees were not judged by the color of their skin, their national origin, their age or their gender, but only by the desire of management to find employees who would show up on time, work hard and get along with everyone — not always an easy type of employee to find.

I remember that only one generation previously, in 1960, groups of nicely dressed, polite, peaceful black youth asked to buy sandwiches at the lunch counter of Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, N.C., where they shopped. These brave youth were spit upon, kicked and savagely beaten by ignorant whites who were inflamed to fear and hate by racist traditions and by cynical politicians and radio talk shows. We have made great progress. How has this happened?

One key point in our long struggle against racism came in the years of World War II, when millions of citizens flocked to industrial cities to build desperately needed tanks, planes and other munitions. My wife’s parents moved from the South to Los Angeles to work at Lockheed. This new industrial force included “Rosie the Riveter” and three million other female workers. Also included were two million blacks who came to Detroit and other manufacturing centers. Race riots occurred against these “different” workers. The federal government passed laws to combat racism in the workplace. Urban black incomes rose and strengthened our economy.

After Victory in 1945, two million black servicemen returned home and were disinclined to settle back into the old racist patterns. Then in 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against separate black schools, which were vastly inferior and had not prepared blacks to be productive members of a modern, changing economy.

As school integration slowly advanced, defensive racist resistance became hysterical, including the tragic-comic appearance of Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, making his “stand in the schoolhouse door,” in defiance of the law of the land. Interestingly, this occurred exactly 50 years ago. Racist fear and hate, incited by the usual culprits, led to increased burnings, beatings and intimidation of those seeking progress for the society. Incidents such as the attacks of police dogs upon children in the marches for equality were seen on television by a horrified American public, who were revolted by this assault upon American values.

The strong public outcry against racist violence led to marches on Washington and other cities, culminating in the famous “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Vigorous public support for better race relations gave the president the bully pulpit needed to push fearful legislators to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Certainly, racism continues its vicious resistance to progress today. However, today, black citizens contribute strongly to our economic and social progress, although there is still a huge need to enlist millions of other blacks in constructive life and work. (Note the many black and minority faces in advertisements for all sorts of products that would have been unobtainable for most blacks 70 years ago.)

Perhaps there may be parallels between the long struggle for a more inclusive and productive society and the long struggle that hopefully will mobilize informed and forceful public support for actions to reduce the “culture of violence” and the slaughter by firearms of 11,000 of our men, women and children each year in our nation — a distinction radically at odds with all other modern nations.