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Race and Beyond: Little-Known History Makes a Big Difference

SOURCE: AP/Horace Cort

Three members of a racially mixed group of college student "freedom riders" catch a nap in the Birmingham, Alabama bus station after they were thwarted several times in attempts to board a bus to Montgomery.

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I’m often taken aback when I hear someone complain that racial conditions in the United States haven’t changed much—or are worse—than at some point in the nation’s past. Anyone who says something so observably false either doesn’t know or fails to respect the progressive march of history.

A recent Newsweek article discovered that we Americans are far too ignorant of our shared history. The editors asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take the nation’s official citizenship test, a set of 100 questions across five categories: U.S. government, systems of government, rights and responsibilities, history, and civics. According to Newsweek 73 percent couldn’t say why the nation fought the Cold War and 44 percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights.

So what hope is there of comprehending the emotionally charged and difficult-to-decipher nuances of U.S. race history if nearly one-third of the people taking a basic test can’t name the vice president? Or if 6 percent can’t circle Independence Day on a calendar?

This ignorance may help explain why some early polls show business mogul and unabashed self-promoter Donald Trump at the top of the GOP presidential sweepstakes. Trump is shrewd enough to know that you can fool enough people with nonsense to get a temporary bump of publicity that you can take to the bank.

But verifiable history isn’t always so lucrative. This crossed my mind recently as I participated in a panel discussion at the University of Michigan with Genevieve Houghton, who related her experiences for a wide-eyed generation that knew very little about her history-making Freedom Ride. Houghton, 83, is a modest and soft-voiced white woman who has lived a life that’s the stuff of U.S. race history.

On May 4, 1961, Houghton was one of two women participants to board a bus in Washington, D.C. as part of an interracial group of civil rights activists. They planned to ride south, testing whether southern states would follow the letter of the law to permit blacks and whites to ride public transportation across state lines. The 1960 Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court decision outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, but the practice prevailed across Dixie.

In Houghton’s remarks she told a group of students that she took part in the Freedom Ride as an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. “We wanted to demonstrate to the world that there were white and black people who wanted to see a just nation,” she said. “We felt we could change the world.”

And they did. Stanley Nelson’s remarkable “Freedom Riders” documentary details that Houghton and hundreds of others challenged southern racism and, in the process, altered the course of U.S. history for the better. As they confronted the status quo of the South, the Freedom Riders drew attention to the racial apartheid of the region. Their nonviolent protests moved the hearts of fair-minded Americans and compelled a reluctant Kennedy administration to enforce the law that protected the rights of all Americans.

Nelson’s film details this transformation in the nation, making it a must-see for anyone interested in a true slice of U.S. race history. It premiers May 16 on PBS stations nationwide.

Houghton was the type of young, white person that Mark R. Warren, an associate professor of education at Harvard University, describes in “White Flight,” his recently published article in The American Prospect.

“Many young white Americans care deeply about fairness and are outraged and inspired to act when they directly witness racism,” Warren writes, comparing today’s generation to an earlier group of civil rights activists. “A commitment to racial justice . . . grows and deepens as white people find ways to work with people of color in multiracial groups.”

That’s precisely Houghton’s story. She told me that she grew up in a privileged cocoon, the daughter of a conservative lawyer in suburban Washington, D.C. She saw “white” and “colored” water fountains in and around the nation’s capitol but was shushed by her parents and neighbors whenever she asked about it.

“We saw things, but we really didn’t see them because we didn’t want to see them,” she said. “We wanted to be ignorant about what was going on because it made us feel better as white people, white people with privileges.”

She said she left home, fleeing to New York City to escape the confines of such narrow-mindedness. Rather than stick with her office job on Wall Street she became active in CORE and found meaning in fighting segregation and injustice.

Houghton isn’t famous, and she doesn’t have a reality show on television. She lives quietly in rural Indiana, and has become something of a low-grade celebrity because of the forthcoming “Freedom Riders” film. Even that modest measure of attention makes her uncomfortable.

“History is all around us,” Houghton said. “If we do what’s right we make history. Sometimes when we do wrong we make it, too. But it’s so much better to be on the right side of history.”

Houghton has long been on the right side of history. And if you ask me, she helped change America, which remains imperfect. But our nation is light years different—and better—than at any previous time in its history because of people like her.

Sam Fulwood is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here