Last weekend I rode a bicycle 60 miles, for many crazy reasons but in part, to celebrate the 60th birthday of my friend, Jackie. Last month, I visited New York City for the first time to help my friend, Sandy, celebrate her 60th birthday. (How can it be that I have such good friends turning 60 years old?)
Sixty years ago my husband’s father at the tender age of 21, returned home from the European theater of World War II, and began dating Karl’s mother. Sixty years ago last April, my parents were married in a white clapboard Lutheran church in west central Minnesota and began a brand new family—my family. Soon my oldest brother will turn 60 years old. (How can I have a brother turning 60? This can’t be happening!)
So much has changed in America over the last six decades. The sixtieth anniversary issue of Ebony Magazine celebrated its coverage of civil rights, movies, sports, politics, Black history, music, religion, TV, fashion, and the arts. The magazine documented the achievements of African Americans, giving them a continuous look at themselves. As one writer said, “Ebony gave us our first mirror to see ourselves as a people of dignity, a people with intelligence and beauty.”
Ebony was founded on November 1, 1945, by 27 year old entrepreneur, John H. Johnson, and is now run by his daughter, President and CEO, Linda Johnson Rice. The anniversary issue looks back at a remarkable period (1945 – 2005) when an amazing transformation of Black America occurred. The period spans the spectrum, from a time when segregation was the law of the land to a time when a Black woman claims the title of US Secretary of State, arguably making her the most powerful woman in the world.
Condoleezza Rice and I were born in the same year—1954. This was the year Brown vs. the Board of Education fought all the way to the US Supreme Court, and a decree went out into all the states that “separate but equal” just wasn’t quite working for poor Blacks living in this segregated “land of the free,” and that things simply had to change. And change they did…not without pain and suffering and bloodshed and lynchings and bombings and fire hoses—and lots of press. But change they did. As it turned out, little black children are entitled to the same educational opportunities as little white children. Hmm. Shocking! It only took 100 years after the Civil War ended to clear that one up!
Sixty years ago, it was illegal in 30 states for a Caucasian to marry a Black or to bear children of mixed race. Indiana was one of these states. I find this particularly interesting because today in 2005, my sons are growing up bi-racial in suburban Indianapolis, and to my knowledge have never had to defend their coffee with cream appearance. They are strong, bright kids with lots of friends, getting good educations in good schools. They are a far cry from the second class citizens they would have been 60 years ago.
It wasn’t until 1965 that the State of Indiana repealed their statute prohibiting a person with more than 1/8 Black heritage from marrying outside his or her race. I find it a puzzlement that these “one drop of black blood” rules, so common in many states, did not apply to any other racial groups. Even 40 years ago, many Americans were dead set on keeping people of color in their place at the bottom, both systemically and culturally. Early in his career, Ray Charles sold out venues across the south, yet wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his white band members. Sixty years ago it was not uncommon for a black man to be beaten or killed for looking at a white woman. High paying jobs were reserved for Whites. Blacks need not apply.
Black and Bi-racial individuals had a long climb up with only gradual and half hearted help from the system along the way. Over the last 60 years, contributions to American culture by people of color far outweigh the 13% of US population they represent. Names such as these live on marked by a celebration of perseverance and hope and faith and spirit and triumph, in the face of near impossible odds: Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks.
…And Adam Clayton Powell, Carol Mosely Braun, Clarence Thomas, John H. Johnson, Langston Hughes, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Jackie Robinson, Joe Frazier, Mohammed Ali, Tony Dungy, Marian Jones, Venus and Serena Williams, Berry Gordy, Aretha Franklin, BB King, James Brown, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, August Wilson, Little Richard, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Halle Barry, Jamie Fox, Denzel Washington, George Hunt, Alex Haley, Maya Angelou, Ophra Winfrey, Shirley Chisholm, Stevie Wonder, Elijiah McCoy, Diana Ross, and Thomas Sowell.
In 2065, a short sixty years from now my sons, Walker and Jackson, will be 75 and 73 years old. I wonder what sort of transformations they will see in the span of their lives. In technology, in medical breakthroughs, transportation, in war and peace, in race relations, in world globalization, in gas prices ($2.69 per gallon as I write this). Who will they marry and will race be a factor? Will the tired and veiled phrase, “but what about the children”, be spoken when they announce their engagements? Where will they make their careers and will the glass ceiling affect them? What kind of world will their grandchildren be born into?
Looking back over the last 60 years, I’ve got to believe in the next 60 years that tolerance will triumph over terrorism, that inclusion will win out over exclusion, that love will proclaim victory over fear.
And that my sons, too, will have good friends and loving families to help them celebrate their milestones.