Photo from the website About: African American History
Greenbelt. Mt. Rainier. Brentwood. Chevy Chase. Once they were “Sundown Towns” in the bitter racial history of the last century according to Dr. James Loewen who wrote a book by the same name. I’ve been reading this book and thinking about the very thin veneer that separates contemporary life from the not-so-distant past in this nation. Thousands of Sundown Towns existed across the United States in the late 19th and through the 20th Centuries, according to Dr. Loewen, and some may still exist today. These were places where Blacks (and sometimes Chinese, Jews, and occasionally Catholics) were not allowed to live or even to be within the town boundaries after sundown. In some cases this shameful discrimination occured by law (de jure) but in most places this occured by practice of the residents (de facto). Dr. Loewen’s research documented this practice as prevalent in the North, not the South, starting after Reconstruction and continuing through at least the 1960’s.
Today, thanks to the courage of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement (see photo above) who forced changes in laws and practices, thousands of African Americans live in those towns mentioned above and the many other towns discussed in Dr. Loewen’s book. So accustomed are most of us to the diversity of our region that we run the risk of forgetting the immense hard work, awesome risks and ultimate sacrifices of those who worked to achieve integration and racial justice. Yet, all we need to do is look around at our schools, communities and workplaces to realize that segregation is still a reality, reflecting the continuing shame and scandal of racism and classism in our society.
Without the galvanizing leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the courage of all who locked arms with him in the Civil Rights Movement, millions of citizens in this free society would still be denied the right to live where they please, work where they desire, attend schools without barriers based on the color of their skin. Yet, at times, it seems that we assume that the legacy of Dr. King in the Civil Rights Acts and constitutional decisions of the 1960’s and later will last forever. Look around. Urban schools are still profoundly segregated, and urban poverty radically segregates Black and Hispanic citizens from the middle class of all races. Affirmative action is dead in Michigan by voter preference (Grosse Pointe was also once a Sundown Town), and withering in other places. The new fashion is to claim color-blindness when, in too many cases, that mis-appropriation of Dr. King’s rhetoric simply reinforces prejudice and segregation.
Martin Luther King Day should not really be a holiday. Too many people today don’t even know the facts about Dr. King or the movement he led. Rather, it should be a day devoted to learning about the continuing plague of racism in this nation, and then recommitting ourselves to work for racial justice.
To read more about Martin Luther King:
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
For more on Sundown Towns visit the Sundown Towns website
Washington Post review of Sundown Towns