Race Is Still An Issue for America

Susan Glisson, CNN, January 14, 2009

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{snip} [The] election of Barack Obama did not end the America’s problems with race.

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The U.S. Census notes that the United States will no longer have a white majority by 2050. Social Security payments for an aging white population will have to be paid by an increasingly brown and black work force, which may resent such support.

Clashes over immigration and tensions between blacks and Latinos suggest that we have much work to do to fulfill the vision of “a more perfect union.”

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This brings us to another stumbling block on the road to creating a more perfect union. We are quick to laud leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy for their contributions, which were very significant. But much of what we have been taught about those contributions is a myth perpetuated by the most egregious shortcoming in teaching history: the savior narrative.

We have all been told that a charismatic leader transformed the South and brought everyone to freedom. For example, everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks. Most students are taught that Rosa Parks was simply just too tired to get up from her seat on the bus that day in Montgomery, Alabama. She was a simple, brave woman who answered the call to stand–in this case, sit–for the Greater Good.

It’s a great story.

The reality, however, goes something like this:

In the spring of 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for violating the segregation ordinance of Montgomery, Alabama. A group of local activists debated using her case to challenge segregation on buses there but decided to wait for a more appropriate case.

That opportunity came in December of that year, when a secretary of the local NAACP, who had been attending leadership and organizing training sessions at Highlander Folk School, chose to remain in her bus seat with the goal of being arrested, allowing the Montgomery group to launch their challenge to the segregation code. That woman was Rosa Parks.

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The savior myth suggests that social change occurs only from a charismatic leader; and that in the absence of such a leader, we cannot accomplish social change on our own. The opposite and more accurate characterization is a more useful model for change.

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The reality of social change during the civil rights period is more complicated and more accessible than any savior myth. Social change begins from the bottom up, with everyday people joining together to make a change. They learn the necessary tools for investigation as well as for resolving conflicts in a nonviolent fashion and for engaging the community.

These first steps are followed by careful analysis of the problems and negotiation with stakeholders who can make a difference. Massive protests are actually a final step when all previous work has failed, not a first-strike response. In the absence of such work on the ground, massive protests fail.

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[Editor’s Note: Susan Glisson is director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, based at the University of Mississippi.]

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