She says the black community must be vigilant, citing the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating a key section of the Voting Rights Act: “It’s subtle. Anything that they can do …to retard progress and say things that make you think you’re all right, when you’re not.”
From Massachusetts to the Mississippi Delta
Owen Brooks likes to say he has lived two lives: one north of the Mason-Dixon line and one south of it. The surprise for him is which has turned out to be longer.
Born in New York and raised in Boston, he didn’t experience Southern-style segregation while growing up, but two years after taking part in the March on Washington, he moved to Mississippi, where he has lived ever since.
For many years, he was an activist with a civil-rights and economic-empowerment group operating in what was considered the state’s most downtrodden area – the Mississippi Delta.
Mr. Brooks has been drawn to progressive politics since his teens (“I couldn’t get enough of that wonderful stuff,” he says with a laugh). As a young man in Boston, he protested against the draft for the Korean War, only to have his mother – an immigrant from Jamaica turned patriotic American – force him to enlist.
He studied engineering at Northeastern University and received a master’s degree in urban studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but activism called. By the time of the march, he was itching to leave his radar job. He remembers an uncomfortable bus ride to the nation’s capital and being near the stage as Dr. King spoke. “I was so excited. This was a wonderful thing.”
Mississippi required some getting used to. “I wasn’t used to being followed, I wasn’t used to oppression,” he recalls. “I wasn’t used to saying ‘sir’ to policemen or to white businessmen” – such as the car salesman who refused payment (in cash) when he wasn’t addressed that way.
Now 85, with curly white hair in a small ponytail, he worries about a lack of political awareness among young people. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep people alerted to the fact that the war ain’t over. It’s just a different battle we’re fighting right now. But the war goes on.”
He describes as “a disaster” the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, which will allow some Southern states to alter election procedures without clearing the changes with federal authorities.
The election of Mr. Obama was “a stellar achievement, nobody can deny that,” Mr. Brooks says, but “it wasn’t enough for us to lay down our sword and shield, so to speak. … We don’t live in a colourblind society – ain’t no sense in kidding yourself.”
Shifting in his recliner, he searches for a way to sum up the past 50 years and turns to a baseball metaphor: “Any amount of perceptiveness will bring you to the realization that we’re a long way from home.
“I don’t know – have we made it to second base yet? Maybe. We certainly haven’t made it to third. We’re in the ball game.”
U.S. justice is biased against black people (July, 2013)
Whites: 25 per cent
Blacks: 68 per cent
Confidence that police treat races equally (2008)
Whites: 42 per cent
Blacks: 12 per cent
Discrimination is a major factor in lower average education for blacks (2008)
*Whites: 32 per cent
Blacks: 64 per cent
Discrimination a major factor in lower black income (2008)
*Whites: 35 per cent
Blacks: 71 per cent
Discrimination is a major factor in higher percentage of blacks in U.S. prisons (2008)*Whites: 44 per cent
Blacks: 80 per cent
Black-white relations in U.S. will always be a problem
Whites: 44 per cent
Blacks: 26 per cent (1963)
Whites: 39 per cent
Blacks: 49 per cent (2013)
Black legislators in 11 former Confederate states
Unemployment (July, 2013)
White: 6.6 per cent
Household income (2011)
Sources: Gallup, Bureau of Labour Statistics, U.S. Supreme Court, National Conference of State Legislatures, Census Bureau
(* Non-Hispanic whites)