Deep South civil rights
When it comes to civil rights and racial equality, there’s a lot of food for thought during a trip through the Deep South of the United States (and I’m not talking about the fried chicken!). Everywhere you go you’re confronted with overt signs of the gap between black and white. Sometimes it’s the poverty you notice, other times it’s to do with status, occasionally it’s about the opportunities. Mostly it’s a blending of many factors that makes you wonder how far this country has come in addressing deep-rooted social disadvantage.
Let’s take New Orleans, for example. It’s a city with a population that is 60 per cent African American but when we went to a music festival there we saw predominately white faces and only a few black ones (Snoop Dogg, excepted).
Then there was a moment when I was passing through an airport in North Carolina that had a shoeshine stall set up. Four (overweight) white people sat in the chairs with their dirty shoes presented to… you guessed it… four African Americans who kneeled there shining for tips. It would have been almost poetic if it had been intentionally setup for effect but, no, it was just the way things are and no one seemed to bat an eyelid as they passed by.
Examples abound and it’s often hard to avoid glaring instances of inequality – in general the colour of the people doing the menial labour, begging for money and sleeping on benches is not the same colour as those drinking in the bars, going to concerts or travelling as tourists.
National Civil Rights Museum Memphis
There were two things in particular that had a profound effect on me during the journey, though. The first was a visit to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. The second was reading the book ‘The Help’ during my journey.
The Civil Rights Museum is a monument to the ignorance, selfishness and hatred of mankind. But it’s also a tribute to the bravery, tenacity and idealism of the human race. It tells the story of how one side overcame the other in a prolonged battle of wills, where one was fighting for justice and the other fighting for power.
The museum has been built in and around the motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in 1968. It was a time that’s hard to understand for someone who was still years from being born. I read the stories, watched the news reports, and listened to the audio guide in that museum and it just didn’t make sense how people could act in such away towards their fellow citizens.
If the museum made me frustrated at the mob mentality, then reading ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett gave that frustration a human face. I would highly recommend you read the book, which tells the story of black maids working in Mississippi in the early 1960s. It’s fiction, but presents a vivid image of life for those women who are treated life second-class citizens by their employers, forced to use separate toilets outside because they are ‘diseased’, sexually assaulted, underpaid and made to feel like they are only one small step above the servitude of their ancestors.
The United States has changed a lot in the decades since the man with the dream was killed and the women had their dreams beaten down by oppression. The laws give opportunity and parity to everyone in theory, but clearly that’s not the experience in practice. Changes to the laws and the thinking of the mainstream don’t mean that in many families the attitudes of the parents haven’t been instilled in their children.
Now, it’s important for me to say that there are some broad generalisations in this article and I’m in no position to make any judgements or present detailed analysis. However, I maintain that the United States has a long way to go on the path to equality. Perhaps it’s just a matter of waiting for generational change to take effect. Or maybe there is still a level of racism bubbling under the surface of society.
What do you think? If you’ve spent time in this part of the US, let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
* You can visit the official website of the National Civil Rights Museum here.
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