A century of progress on race

January 09, 2000

This is an edited excerpt of a Chicago Tribune editorial, which was published Thursday.

AT THE beginning of the 20th century, it was a matter of some controversy when President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, the pre-eminent "Negro leader" of his day, to dine at the White House.

By the end of the 20th century, few Americans found it at all remarkable, much less objectionable, that President Clinton and his family customarily had Christmas Eve dinner at the home of family friend and Washington power broker Vernon Jordan, a black man.

Or that the manager of Vice President Al Gore's campaign for president was Donna Brazile, an African-American woman. Or that the head of GOP front-runner George W. Bush's foreign policy brain trust is a black woman, Condoleeza Rice.

America came a long way on race in the 20th century and the journey to full racial equality is far from finished. But it is useful to occasionally recall where we came from.

Much of the history of race in 20th century America is the story of efforts to claw back human and civil rights that African-Americans thought had already been won. The right, for example, to attend decent schools. Or the rights, most fundamentally, to vote and enjoy equal justice under law.

The victories in this campaign came through the blood, sweat, courage -- and intelligence -- of thousands, most of whose names are unknown to most Americans. But the names that are enshrined in our collective national memory embody the struggle of all.

There is, of course, the martyred apostle of non-violent direct action, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. There is the indefatigable legal genius Thurgood Marshall. There is Rosa Parks, the tiny lady of enormous courage who triggered the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to move to the back of the bus.

There was Harry S. Truman, who ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. And there was Lyndon B. Johnson, who put his and his party's electoral future on the line by becoming an advocate for civil rights. At the turn of this new century, many of the racial issues America confronts are less stark and more complex than in the past. But thanks to these 20th century heroes, the color line has been erased from the law books, if not yet from every human heart.

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