The Racial Divide: Will It Widen Or Close?

Marian Wright Edelman – President, Children’s Defense Fund Posted: 08/31/2012 5:39 pm

I often say to people who come to the Schomburg that the crisis of today is a consequence of not one, but two generations born after the Civil Rights Movement who have been deliberately kept from their history.

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, June 2012

When Dr. Khalil Muhammad speaks, people listen. He is a scholar, historian and the director of the New York Public Library’s renowned Schomburg Center for Research in black Culture. Dr. Muhammad knows a lot about the importance of being mindful of learning from history. When he spoke about equality of opportunity to 1,800 young leaders at a Children’s Defense Fund’s Haley Farm leadership training session in June, he explained that our nation is testing the old saying “those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

He said:

Because of individual black achievement, some today believe that we have finally reached the promised land of a colorblind equal opportunity America, and yet — and here’s the history lesson — this is the not the first time we’ve been to the mountaintop. Five generations ago, many Americans believed that the heavy lifting of building racial democracy had been completed. What better proof, they claimed, than the election of more than a dozen African Americans to the United States Congress? From the 1870s through the turn of the 20th century, 14 black men served in the U.S. House of Representatives and two black men served in the U.S. Senate. Undeniably these were historic times, watershed events and moments for great optimism.

As it turned out, the golden Reconstruction era just after the Civil War was just the beginning in a long string of false hopes that eventually became unfulfilled expectations. Dr. Muhammad noted that observers have continued to make the same mistake of unfounded optimism about racial equality over and over in the decades since then. Meanwhile, children are not being taught about past battles in the struggle for equality, even relatively recent ones — as shown by the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress that found only two percent of the nation’s high school seniors demonstrated basic knowledge of the