Jan. 14 1963, George Wallace was sworn in as the Governor of Alabama with the vile cry, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation for ever.”
The 50 yr anniversary of that damnable speech comes the day before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday (read my post tomorrow, Tues. Jan. 15.) and exactly one week before the second inauguration of the nation’s first African American President, which happens to fall on the MLK holiday this year (Mon. Jan. 21). That’s poetic justice.
In 1960, nine students from Southern University sat in at a segregated lunch counter at the Kress Building in Baton Rouge in protest of the segregation. They were arrested and expelled from school, but eventually took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court where they were represented by Thurgood Marshall. The court decided in the student’s favor.
The Kress Building, renovated in 2008, now features a high-end art gallery curated by a black artist from Baton Rouge, Christopher Turner. On Jan. 18, 2013, the gallery will host an opening for “History & Innovation,” an exhibit featuring four African American artists living in Baton Rouge.
But what is segregation? Why did the use of and access to places & spaces became such a pillar of racism?
Space, how much of it you take and how much of it you believe you’re entitled to, is a physical expression of your power, practical and perceived.
Practical power refers to what you can do in the world, like vote, make purchases, sit in a seat, enter through a door, apply for a job, hold an office, or eat in a dining area. Perceived power refers to how much power you feel or believe you have. It can also refer to other people’s perception of you based on how you position yourself in spaces.
The most powerful kings had the most land. The most powerful empires took up the most space on the map. Rich people’s homes take up way more space than poor people’s homes. Confident men tend to spread their legs and stretch their arms. Insecure men tend to hunch and keep their arms closer to their bodies. People often express power by invading someone else’s personal space.
For people like George Wallace, segregation was literally the way to make sure blacks stayed in their place so that whites could stay in their place of power.
Space is also about inside and outside, both physically and socially.
Segregation emphasizes the social part. After slavery, segregation was used to continue denying blacks entry into full American citizenship. The institutionalized separation of races perpetuates the belief that race is the ultimate characteristic for determining who is “one of us.”
Why talk about segregation now?
The same power play of space is still present in our everyday, micro experiences.
A few of my fourteen year old 9th graders asked why we had to talk about Civil Rights since it was “in the past.” They never asked that question when learning about history in general because such a question is really a way to avoid the sensitive topic of race. It’s not a genuine inquiry into the relevance of history, a relevance which always seems apparent for every other historical topic.
Well, much of our country is still segregated, even in our holier-than-thou states like California. That makes me wonder if George Wallace’s wish came true in some ways.
The fact that overt segregation based on race is now illegal, makes the persistence of segregation even more disturbing and troubling. It was one thing when the law said multiple races could not occupy the same classroom. But now that the law is reversed, and we still see tons of mono-racial classrooms across this nation, it’s clear that even if we’ve done away with the old laws, we’ve not done away with the old social structure.
Some of us are trying to dismantle it. Others are trying to preserve it.