FIFTY YEARS ago it was illegal for a black person in the US to sit in public spaces designated for white people.
Schools, buses, restaurants, laundromats, all reflected the cancerous prejudice that had deteriorated and divided the land of the so-called free – the nation that was supposed to have been built on principles of equality.
But the year 1964 also marked a turning point for America’s black population.
The culmination of years of struggle by heroes and heroines like Rosa Parks, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin. King was one of the 72 people who signed it into power on July 2, 1964.
The landmark legislation set the stage for change, ushering in other equality laws like the 1965 Voting Rights Act which allowed all Americans, finally, to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
Fifty years on, that right to vote helped make history by putting the first black man in the seat of the US presidency. But how far has the country come in achieving true equality and integration?
Speaking exclusively to The Voice, Jackson, who marched alongside King, insisted that there is still a lot more ground to break.
“After 246 years of slavery, and another 100 years of legal apartheid wherein we had no rights that whites were bound to respect, African Americans became free. We won the right to vote, and from this right to vote, flows all other rights,” said Jackson.
“But the mission is incomplete, as we are free but not equal. And there is a tremendous backlash against the freedoms we have achieved – a conservative state’s rights movement, based in the old Confederate southern states – attacking the voting rights, workers and women’s rights, seeking to turn back the clock.”
Dr Linda Callahan, a professor in the department of journalism at North Carolina A&T State University, agreed.
She said: “Many thought that that battle for voting rights was over and done with, but recently legislations have been introduced that turn back the clock.
“They are reintroducing restrictions on voting which has a direct impact on the voting power of black people, Hispanic people, and other ethnic minorities. The scrapping of weekend and early morning voting is going to directly affect those people, because they are the ones who are mostly represented in hourly paid employment, and will struggle to get time off work to vote.”
Jackson also pointed out the undeniable economic inequalities that still exist.
He continued: “Those African Americans that achieved middle class status, took the hardest hits during the recent recession – the hardest hit by home foreclosures, resulting in a tremendous loss of family wealth. We lost the most homes; we lost the most jobs; the gaps between rich and poor became wider.
“Our black middle class is now heavily in debt, and sinking. And the poor are getting poorer. In that sense, we are in the same boat. Racial disparities affecting all African Americans persist in America, and the gaps are widening.”
Remedies for inequality, he said, must not be “blind to race – but race conscious, as we seek racial equality and economic justice”.
He added: “President Obama feels that one shoe fits all feet. This may be generally true, but there are some specific situations where it is not.”
Callahan called for progressive thinking and integration – “a focus on what we have in common and what will truly benefit the community as a whole.”
UK race equality campaigner Wally Brown, who led a mediation process which helped to quell tensions following race riots in Toxteth, Liverpool in July 1981, said the civil rights movements that had wrought change in America had similarly injected a spirit of activism in the black UK community.
Referring to the UK’s black power movement that challenged the blatant prejudice against Caribbean migrants and led to our own race equality laws, he declared that the “UK was very much influenced by what was coming out of America.”
He added: “The Martin Luther King’s movement, Rosa Park’s stand on the bus and all those things had a great impact on the black communities in this country. And to a certain extent they got a lot of strength from those movements.
“I think this country has not really seen the same scale of national clashes that happened in America, but certainly different cities have managed to move things along.”
Comparing the progress made he said: “Today, the landscape is very different in that we have black MPs, and black people are more visible on television etc, but there is still a lot fight for.
“For most black people there is still a long way to go in terms of access to resources and jobs.”
He added: “America still has similar challenges as the UK with economic inequality but it has a much bigger black middle class.”
Jackson insisted that, despite the challenges that remain, the black community in the US has come a long way in realising its strengths.
He said: “It’s been 30 years since my first Rainbow presidential campaign, and 50 years since we won the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What is different today is that we have freedoms today, and tools in our arsenal to advance our movement.
“We have more confidence now, because we know we’ve never lost a battle that we fought, and never won unless we fought.”