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Letter: Is America a systemically racist country?

I am 73 years old and had the opportunity to observe a number of historical events of the late 1950s and early 1960s which has helped me to formulate my personal opinion concerning this issue. Growing up in west central Minnesota, I recall seeing the occurrence of the following three national racial events in real time while watching a black-and-white TV screen.

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Is America a systemically racist country? This appears to be one of the most hotly debated issues of our time. I am 73 years old and had the opportunity to observe a number of historical events of the late 1950s and early 1960s which has helped me to formulate my personal opinion concerning this issue. Growing up in west central Minnesota, I recall seeing the occurrence of the following three national racial events in real time while watching a blackand-white TV screen.

In the summer of 1957 our own Federal Judge Ronald Davies ordered the racial desegregation of Little Rock High School in Arkansas. In an attempt to block the enforcement of this federal order, Gov. Orval Faubus, an avowed segregationist, called up the national guard of his state and ordered them to prevent the entry of any Black students into the high school. In response to Faubus' overtly racist and unlawful action, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the deployment of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division to enforce Judge Davies' order. In September of 1957 members of the 101st Airborne Division physically protected and escorted nine Black teenagers (Little Rock 9) into the high school building, even as they were surrounded by hundreds of white protestors who shouted racial insults, slurs, and threats at the brave Black students. It was apparent to any observer that the vast majority of white protestors that were present fully supported Faubus' segregationist policy in all public schools.

On May 2, 1961, Eugene 'Bull' Connor won a landslide victory to serve a sixth term of office as commissioner of public safety for Birmingham, Alabama. Connor's main campaign promise was to keep Birmingham the most segregated major city in the United States. On May 8, 1961, Connor was informed that a busload of civil rights activists known as Freedom Riders would arrive in Birmingham on May 14, 1961. Connor responded by publicly stating that the citizens of Birmingham and his office would be prepared when they arrived in town. At the time he made that statement, Connor knew that the KKK and other white supremacists intended to brutally assault the passengers in the bus when they arrived. On May 14th, the bus arrived and Connor ordered the police to stand down for 15 minutes, to allow the angry racist white mob sufficient time to assault and beat the occupants as they tried to exit the bus.

On January 14, 1963, newly-elected governor of Alabama George Wallace gave his inaugural address before a national TV audience on the front lawn of the state capitol in Birmingham. The high point of his speech was his famous proclamation supporting "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Upon hearing those words, a large crowd of white supporters erupted in applause.

These three national racial incidents (and many others that I saw on TV at the time which are too numerous to mention) share two common threads. First, emboldened by obvious broad public support, a political leader publicly expresses his support for the continuation of racist policies sanctioned by the state. Second, the vast majority of the white public enthusiastically support the racist policy openly and in a public venue for all to hear and see. In short, the racism of the Deep South region of America that existed in all aspects of society, law and culture as recently as the early 1960s, was so ingrained and pervasive that both private individuals and public officials did not have any inhibition in the public disclosure of their racist attitudes and beliefs.

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America has come a long way since 1965. To be sure, America now ensures equal opportunity and equality of civil rights for all citizens regardless of race, religion or national origin, to a degree that is at least commensurate to that offered to their own citizens by Canada and the countries of western Europe. This has largely occurred due to the successful implementation of numerous Affirmative Action programs throughout the United States in the past 50 years, pursuant to mandates from the federal government. There is no evidence to support any claim that the brutal, pervasive, and systemic racism that existed in the Deep South as late as the early 1960s has persisted up to the present. No national racial incident which contains the two common threads as described above has occurred anywhere in America in the many years that have transpired between the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not even close.

To be sure, history proves that the CRA of 1964 and the VRA of 1965 were the legal catalysts that presaged the rapid and complete eradication of the systemic racism that had persisted in the Deep South from the end of the Civil War (1865) up to the early 1960s. Those who argue that America is currently a systemically racist country conveniently ignore the above undisputed historical facts, presumably because their existence seriously undermines the validity of their underlying claim.

Galen J. Vaa lives in Moorhead and is a retired Judge of District Court for Clay County.

This letter does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.

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