Strong foundation

September 21, 2004|By Dr. Keiffer J. Mitchell

AT A FORUM in Baltimore marking the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, some participants questioned the effectiveness of that law and other landmarks of civil rights.

They noted the sad conditions in which many African-Americans live, the well-documented and persistent disparities in health, employment, educational attainment and mortality. And they asked why more hasn't been done to remediate the civil wrongs against African-Americans that have endured in our society.

While they correctly conclude that the giant steps forward in civil rights fell short of fixing all wrongs, I would caution anyone who overlooks or disparages their value. The door to mainstream participation for people of all walks of life was opened by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which built on the desegregation of schools made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, 50 years old this year. As was evident at the forum, the significance of the 1964 law is not generally understood.

Recalling the efforts of my father, Clarence Mitchell Jr., who as director of the Washington bureau of the NAACP and with so many others fought to realize the promises of the Constitution, I could not help becoming incensed by the naysayers there. Some take for granted that they benefit from many of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act, even as they gathered in an interracial public forum sponsored by a government agency in a public building and then departed for dinner in a nonsegregated restaurant.

For those who lived through the tumultuous times, for those who fought and sacrificed, it's not possible to take such changes in society for granted. They came at a price. I can see examples reflected throughout my own life that illustrate the merit and enduring worth of Brown vs. Board and the Civil Rights Act.

In September 1954, I was the first African-American to integrate Gwynns Falls Park Junior High School in Baltimore City. Residents of the neighborhood organized a protest, which was at times violent. Yet even as I endured a beating, taunts and cold shoulders, it was apparent to me that this school helped expand my interest in art.

In December 1954, I designed the linoleum block cover for the Christmas edition of the school newspaper; I received credit on the cover and inside. To create it, I used materials that, because of inadequate public funding, had not been available to me at my former school, the segregated and overcrowded Booker T. Washington Junior High School.

My father's neighborhood originally had a mix of ethnic white families and businesses along with African-American families, but that later changed. We became locked in a ghetto. But we were protected by our parents, who exposed us to a variety of cultural events and opportunities to make up for not being able to participate in those in the mainstream.

Having seen the lengths to which some would go to support segregation, I can see how far we've come. For example, I won a citywide arts contest. The winners were to gather at Hutzler's segregated restaurant for breakfast. So that I could participate, the event was moved to an hour when regular customers would not be present.

I graduated from Baltimore City College in 1959 and from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the alma mater of my father and Thurgood Marshall, in 1963. In 1967, I graduated from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. It had been the grand plan of 13 Southern states and Maryland to offer black students scholarships to out-of-state schools so that they would not enroll alongside white children in their own state institutions. Meharry was the institution preferred by Maryland.

When I returned to Baltimore, I completed my academic training as the first African-American to integrate Greater Baltimore Medical Center and the Johns Hopkins University post-doctoral training program in my medical specialty, gastroenterology. Titles III and IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred hospitals and universities that received federal funds from discriminating against African-Americans, fortunately for me.

This summer, a member of a medical group I helped found received an application from a well-qualified candidate whose credentials bore the names of prestigious universities. She is practicing medicine in her native Mississippi and was directly affected by the Civil Rights Act because it forbids sexual discrimination. What I didn't know until the day she walked through the door for the interview was that she also was African-American, and I found that fact thrilling - and further proof of the legacy of these landmark laws.

The laws by themselves didn't change society or minds, but they opened the educational process and furthered opportunities for the pursuit of academic excellence, and that opened doors. They made it possible for us to be trained in how to be involved in the political process, to fight for the betterment of society for everyone, not just African-Americans.

We need to read and understand all of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act. We need to remember that there are revisionists who would like to encourage negative stories and emphasize what hasn't been accomplished in an effort to neutralize the great strides made by the law. And we need to remember that built into the law are provisions for its enforcement. We need to build coalitions to take better advantage of them so that we can deal with those shortcomings that still need addressing in American society.

The Civil Rights Act is a living law, and it's ours to value and defend.

Keiffer J. Mitchell is a medical doctor in private practice in Baltimore.

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