30 years later, time for a 'new beginning'

Jack L. Levin

May 26, 1993|By Jack L. Levin

OH, what a time it was 30 years ago!

That year, 1963, was a watershed, turbulent, earth-shaking year when the president was assassinated and the civil rights revolution roared to a climax. Some of us thought of it as a new beginning.

I remember an uncannily prophetic sermon by my rabbi and friend, Morris Lieberman of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, on April 12. More than a year before passage of the civil rights bill and more than five years before America's cities erupted in the 1968 racial conflagration, Rabbi Lieberman spoke presciently to an audience not altogether sympathetic.

"Are we as a nation on a collision course in Negro-white relations that must inevitably lead to bitterness, tragedy and violence?" he asked. "Has the failure of organized religion to give more effective leadership exposed a naked spiritual bankruptcy that makes a mockery of our protestations that the fatherhood of God must lead to the brotherhood of man?

"These are questions that must be faced frankly and answered honestly. I do not agree that the forces of democracy are too little, that the hour is too late to achieve anything, and that all that we can do is to weep. Racial prejudice and discrimination are not evils of a physical nature like earthquakes, tidal waves and tornadoes, about which human beings can do little or nothing preventive. Prejudice and discrimination are evils of human nature, and these are capable of cure almost instantaneously if the determination to remedy them is strong enough and the right courses of action are set in motion. I would never despair about improving human behavior."

On June 12, Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Miss. Later, several black Southern churches were bombed, DTC worshipers killed. Martial law had to be ordered in Cambridge, Md., to quell racial outbreaks. President Kennedy was moved at last by the escalating violence to send to Congress a draft of what became, a year later, the first civil rights law.

Aware that Congress would not act without massive public pressure, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; A. Philip Randolph, head of the railroad porters union; veteran civil rights activist Bayard Rustin; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders -- white and black, Christian and Jewish -- organized the historic march on Washington.

On Aug. 28, in sweltering Washington heat, thousands of cars and 1,500 buses rolled into the capital from all over the United States. More than a quarter-million sweating Americans, holding hands, linking arms, sang "We Shall Overcome" and marched down the mall to the Lincoln Memorial.

There, before the stern statue of the Great Emancipator, we heard King deliver his famous "I Have a Dream" call to arms. Equally moving for us in the American Jewish Congress contingent was to hear our national president, Joachim Prinz, formerly chief rabbi of Berlin, thunder against "the sin of silence" in the face of racial discrimination. He compared it to the silence of the German people as Hitlerism engulfed his nation.

We have come a long way in race relations in 30 years. But today there is still much to be done. The new beginnings of 1963 have to be renewed. Racial equality and justice have not yet been achieved. Racial tensions and hostilities still explode, as in Los Angeles and Crown Heights, and some of the facts of life about the American inner-city black community are appalling:

* The infant mortality rate for African-Americans is more than double that of whites. More than 43 percent of African-American children live in poverty, more than three times the rate for white children.

* African-Americans now constitute about 29 percent of U.S. cases of AIDS and more than half of all women and children with the disease.

* The major cause of death for black men between 15 and 34 is homicide, accounting for nearly half of all U.S. murder victims.

* Despite the progress of the past 30 years in white-collar and retail jobs, blacks have not been empowered to achieve anything like parity with whites in managerial and professional jobs. A 1988 study in Baltimore showed that, in the construction field, less than 1 percent of black workers in the industry have attained professional or managerial status. In service industries, the figure is 2 1/4 percent.

If high priority is not given immediately to the gathering storm in our cities, our new beginning will go nowhere. In '93 as in '63, a two-by-four between the eyes is needed to get the mule's attention.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

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