OHIO VALLEY — The world has changed over and over again during the last 50 years, but have enough positive changes been made and what areas still need to be improved?
That’s one question that many people have been asking around the country with the observance this week of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the famous ‘I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A new study released by the Pew Research Center just this week states that 45 percent of all Americans say the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality, while 49 percent says that a lot more needs to be done.
In order to gain local perspectives on the anniversary of the March on Washington and the state of civil rights in southeastern Ohio, we talked with two people with strong ties to Gallia County, Elaine Armstrong and Robert Gordon.
Armstrong, who is retired from the University of Rio Grande/Rio Grande Community College and lives in Bidwell, was 17 in 1963 when the March on Washington was held. She grew up in Bidwell and attended North Gallia High School, which at the time had the largest enrollment of minority students of the county schools. The Gallipolis City Schools had a larger enrollment of minority students, she added.
At the time, there were only three television stations that could be picked up locally, and the Civil Rights movement was one of the main items covered on the news.
“We could see the news reports about the sit-ins, boycotts, freedom riders, and the effort to get people registered to vote. I remember watching the daily reports about the fire hoses being used on demonstrators, both black and white, who were marching together for freedom and integration of lunch counters, and buses, for jobs and housing,” Armstrong said.
“Everyone in my family watched ‘bug-eyed’ at the daily news reports. We, too, wanted what the marchers and protestors wanted, but primarily talked about it only between family members and close friends. It was not something that was discussed at school or in the community on an open basis. It seemed to be a private thing. Some people felt that changes definitely needed to be made, while others felt that by marching and civil disobedience, no matter how non-violent, that the actions may stir up negative feelings in the community … and how those feelings may affect employment or our perceived status in the community was always a concern, especially among older people. They had worked long and hard for what little they had, and were fearful of losing it or how they would be perceived by the larger community.”
Dr. King was considered a hero in her home, and Armstrong explained that her parents told her often about the struggles they faced due to the color of their skin.
“They had experienced first-hand what Dr. King was fighting for. I think because my parents experienced so much bigotry, segregation and racism … that I understood the plight of Dr. King much more than the youth of today. I knew people directly that had actually experienced the problems and issues that Dr. King and others were fighting against,” she said.
Gordon, a former Gallipolis City Manager who today works for Ohio University, was just a baby in 1963.
“I entered a world of inequalities; including discrimination, housing, employment and voting. The determination of Dr. Martin Luther King and countless others at his side, literally and figuratively throughout the nation, ignited change and established an advance on freedoms promised over 100 years prior,” Gordon said. Today, he added, many of those freedoms are often taken for granted.
“African-Americans are free to walk the streets of this country without yielding the sidewalk. They can greet a white female publicly without the fear of being charged with ‘eye rape.’ We can eat in restaurants at the same time and next to white citizens without the owner breaking the plates on the floor to prevent a white patron from ever eating off them. Furthermore, we can openly participate in the voting process to elect ‘change agents’ in our communities without the ludicrous requirement to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap,” Gordon said. “Local African-Americans no longer have to be in off the streets before dark in area ‘Sun Down Towns.’ They no longer have to travel with ‘Green Books,’ sandwiches, pillows and toilet paper to address their personal needs. They no longer have to suppress or hide their affection for others of another race without the fear of being jailed or even lynched.”
Looking back on it now, Armstrong is amazed at how much has changed since 1963 in Gallia County and around the country.
“We, as a people of color, have come so far in the last 50 years,” she said. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed lives for so many people like nothing else has ever done. Opportunities that did not exist in housing, voting, education, and jobs prior to 1964, opened up like never before. President Obama, a black man is currently serving a second term as President of the United States…the most powerful position in the world, on behalf of the most powerful nation on the face of the earth. Even today, I still find that mind boggling, and I frequently think about what my parents and ancestors would think if they were alive to see and experience this time in our country.”
Armstrong added that she feels obligated to remember and honor those who went before her and who paved the way so that she would have the opportunities that she has had.
“A lot of people, both black and white literally died for what they believed in … a better tomorrow, a greater society for all humankind. Too often, I think that people think that the struggle is over, but that is not true. Almost daily, there are legislative proposals to change the way/who/where/when people can vote. When people can vote, no matter what their race, creed, or color … that is true power. Too many people fought and died for this right, and we need to be very vigilant and very concerned in this area. Racial profiling is also a major concern. Too many people are being stopped, questioned, detained, arrested, and even hurt or killed based on their race, ethnicity or country of origin,” Armstrong said.
In order to truly honor Dr. King, Armstrong said that Americans need to do more than just name roads and buildings after him, they must take action.
“That is, we must encourage our young people to get the best possible education they can … to be prepared academically to make a positive difference in the world. Stop bellyaching and complaining about what or why something is, or is not, like it should be … get out there and make a positive difference in our neighborhoods, our communities and in society,” Armstrong said. “Young adults must get registered to vote, and then exercise that right at every opportunity. They must stand up, speak out and step forward in making a positive contribution to the world in which they live. It really is true … where there’s a will, there’s a way. Dr. King’s life proved that.”
“Lastly, when I think of Dr. King,” Armstrong said, “I think of another quote that he frequently and so eloquently stated, he said ‘a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent, so stand up and step forward.’”
Gordon explained that he is proud of all of the progress that has been made, but he also sees problems that need to be addressed. Much has been done to alleviate racism in Gallia County and southern Ohio over the years, but racism still persists, he said.
“As a child in the local grade schools I learned of ‘home-grown’ racism early on from a female classmate, informing me that I couldn’t be ‘sweet’ on her white female friend because of the color of my skin,” Gordon said. “This bigotry is taught to our local children even today. Such behavior becomes ingrained. Until the cycle is interrupted, the behavior will continue.”
Gordon does see times when that cycle is broken, and he sees how it has opened new doors for African-Americans.
“In recent years, I’ve witnessed churches and community groups working together more frequently to address the needs of the entire community regardless of racial divides. Many of these efforts are due to the hearts of individual champions who are responding to a higher calling and indeed may have been influenced by the efforts of men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Gordon said. “My personal opportunities have included administration of several community social service agencies and the appointment as the first and only African-American City Manager to the county seat in almost 200 years. It is a less than frequent occasion to see individuals of color in positions of authority and prominence in our region. We have the local talent, ripe for cultivation.”
In order to help the next generation, Gordon believes that there needs to be more positive role models for local children, especially those in the African-American community.
“ Such role models would serve to stimulate civic ownership and responsibility, higher education or vocational attainment and aspirations of greatness — not mediocracy. My favorite radio host, Joe Madison, implores his listeners to not be undervalued, underestimated or marginalized. We have to teach this lesson to all our youth, as well as ourselves,” Gordon said.
And Gordon, like Armstrong, believes strongly that in order to bring about more positive change, people need to take action.
“Indeed the world has changed, but challenges still exist in the same and additional areas including homelessness, incarceration, poverty and employment. These are not issues unique to our community. We share them with the country, if not the world,” Gordon said. “The issue of fighting for justice is described as a struggle, as it is ongoing, requiring much of its soldiers. And like any battle, reinforcements are needed. You are needed.”