Witness to 45 years of racial change

March 24, 1997|By Carl T. Rowan

NEW ORLEANS -- I am here, and I was in Nashville, to celebrate the republication of a book I wrote 45 years ago about race relations in my native South.

Louisiana State Press has flattered and honored me by including my first book, ''South of Freedom,'' in a series of American ''classics'' that it is republishing in paperback. It affords even me the opportunity to re-read my chronicles of the 6,000-mile journey of a black man through Jim Crow Dixie and get a new sense of just how much relations between black and white Americans have changed.

The event at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center on the campus of Vanderbilt University would have been unthinkable 45 years ago. A few hundred people -- half black, half white (including a black justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, A.A. Burch, and Vanderbilt's president, Joe Wyatt) -- gathered to say howdy and buy the book.

In 1952 there were no black judges at any level in my native Tennessee; I could not have gone on the Vanderbilt campus except as a servant; and most white Tennesseans dared only to buy ''bootleg'' copies of ''South of Freedom.''

In New Orleans I am staying at the Ponchartrain Hotel where I would have been denied a room because of my race in 1952. I moved with great fear for my personal safety 45 years ago, knowing that black people held no political or police powers. Now a black man is mayor of New Orleans and the black vote is a powerful force.

Petty apartheid vanishes

The positive effects of the civil-rights revolution -- the Public Accommodations Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- are manifest everywhere across the South. The petty apartheid side of American life has vanished from buses, trains, restaurants and hotels, festering now only in country clubs and corporate boardrooms.

But I am seeing stark reminders that the spirit of Jim Crow is alive and sinister in some areas, although no longer a phenomenon of the former slave states.

In Nashville and New Orleans, as in Boston and Buffalo, passions over race are still corrosive factors in the education of the nation's children. De-facto racial segregation, reflecting elements of apartheid in residential and school-location patterns, produces racial divisiveness almost as deep and bitter as was the anger over legally imposed racial separation almost half a century ago.

I don't see today, as I did in 1951, ''Whites Only'' and ''Colored Only'' signs on water fountains or railroad station doors. Laundries no longer carry boastful but inaccurate signs saying ''We Wash White Folks' Clothes Only.''

Yet here as across America a part of the curse of racism lies barely below the surface. The generations-old debate about racial superiority-inferiority is still reflected in arguments over affirmative action -- who gets the good jobs, college scholarships and other opportunities. That, like every other manifestation of racism, is no longer geographical, but a pervasive force in all America.

So many young adults express amazement that so many ''stupid'' kinds of racism were ''the way of life'' 45 years ago. What will we deem to have been stupid 45 years from now?

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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