By Rita Serra
Imagine it’s October 17, 1989
The decade marked by Rubik’s Cubes, Ronald Reagan, Pac Man, and shoulder pads is rounding to a close. This was the year that brought Lean on Me, Field of Dreams and Spike Lee’s, Do the Right Thing to the silver screen. Perms rule the hair waves, while rock and pop still rule the airways.
You are cruising down the highway in your Honda Accord when the DJ’s deep, satin voice says, “Hot off the presses here is Billy Joel’s, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
The song is a snapshot series of headlines that chronicles 1949 to 1989. Before Joel lunches into the first chorus he stamps out the syllables, “Santayana Goodbye.” George Santayana was a poet, novelist, and philosopher who left the world with a slew of notable words including,
“those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Reason, 1905
I was raised in a small, coastal town in North Carolina. Before I’d grown tall enough to see over the kitchen counter, I was spellbound by the music of the 1960’s and 70’s, despite the fact that I was born in 1994. Seriously, in fourth grade I was baffled when the rest of my girl scout troop wanted to listen to The Scooby Doo soundtrack instead of The Who’s legendary rock-opera, Tommy, on our way to the aquarium.
I developed a strong interest in the collection of stories that comprise our nation’s history. Each fact, figure, and historical antidote I was taught felt like a puzzle piece. Together these treasured pieces, with their smoothed edges, inflated bubbles, and concave voids, formed the present-day picture. They explained why America is the way it is and helped me better understand my place in the world.
In my adolescent years, I believed the 1960’s were a magical time, only abound with love and guitar circles, capped off by Woodstock as the ultimate emblem of unity. But as I came of age, I sensed that something was off and ran to the books like a moth who caught sight of flickering candle through a cracked door.
I directed my core university studies to the social and political movements of 20th century America. I was riveted by the sheer volume of audacious political activism that marked the 1960’s with its mixed overtones of social commentary, call to action, and peaceful ethos.
By 1969 the American Indian, Anti-war, Civil Rights, Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation Movements were all in full force. These marginalized groups of citizens showed they had, had enough through; boycotts, burned flags, flower power, marches, legislative changes, long hair, occupied federal land, overtly-politicized music, protests, rallies, speeches, strikes, strategic violence, sit-in’s, and walkouts. They were met by vehement opposition and faced arrests, bombings, beatings, death threats, hate mobs, police brutality, fire hoses, tear gas, and K-9 units.
It was not until I studied history on the university level that I came to the stunning realization; the curriculum taught during our most formative years in primary schools is a whitewashed version of history that omits critical pieces of the US history puzzle, especially regarding black citizen’s plight to obtain equal rights.
As I peeled back the layers, I uncovered that Woodstock’s idyllic legacy of, “three days of peace, love, and music” overshadowed the reality that this was the most divisive, violent, and socially-volatile decade in our nation’s history.
My quest for knowledge culminated to a twenty-five-page history thesis entitled, “Shattering the Myth of Woodstock” in which I discussed all of the ways this event was the antithesis of the decade it came to symbolize and discovered the path to revolution has many lanes.
The first time I sat in front of my Victrola and listened to a vinyl record after I submitted my thesis I nearly cried. I took this event, this hopeful idea, this guiding principle that I had shaped part of my belief system around, and marred it. I took something I regarded as a beautiful and holy and made it ugly by ripping off the mask and uncovering the truth.
However, I have never regretted my decision to shatter Woodstock because I gained solace and an emboldened sense of security knowing that I possessed the truth. I came to the realization that knowing and seeing the truth is more beautiful than the vision we create.
The era I once loved for the music was now the era I deeply respected for the courage it took to change the world on societal, cultural, and legislative levels. Most people believe that after a law is passed, the problem is solved. The unfortunate truth is that changing the law does not change society’s views or instantly alter cultural biases. Generations of black citizens learned first-hand that legal “victories” were often followed by languid change, staunch backlash and a slew of new hurdles to overcome.
America’s current state of domestic affairs is rapidly becoming an ominous echo of the late 1960’s. Race relations have reached a critical boiling point. Every day people are spilling onto the streets with ardent resilience, refusing to be silenced. In order to understand how America has gotten to the point it has today, it is helpful to unpack history like a recipe for homemade soup, and go back to the point that the pot was set down and the stove-top was turned on.
“My skin is black, My arms are long, My hair is woolly, My back is strong,
Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again”
-Nina Simone, Four Women, 1966
Let’s take a page out of Santayana’s notebook and follow the stories that have led us to today.
Voting: In 1870 the 15th amendment was ratified, stating, “a [male] citizen’s right to vote would not be denied on the basis of race, color, or servitude.” In response, the former Confederate States immediately coded discriminatory voting requirements into law, such as poll taxes, property ownership, and literacy tests, designed to prevent black men from voting. They would have stopped many poor white men from voting had it not been for a set of loopholes. “Grandfather Clauses” stated that if someone’s ancestors had been registered to vote before the Civil War, then that person was exempt from certain voting requirements.
It took well over a century for the majority of citizens from the southern states to accept the fact that people of color were their fellow citizens who had the right to vote. In 1965 the Voting Rights Acts was passed, doing away with discriminatory voting requirements, and the 24th amendment was ratified, eliminating the poll tax. Concurrently, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) resurged when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1950’s and 60’s. The KKK employed violence and sever intimidation tactics, including murder, to repress black votes and white sympathizers. The group’s fearsome reputation combined with generations of prejudiced views, made it unnerving for white America to collectively wrap their minds around sharing power.
“Southern man, better keep your head, don’t forget, what your good book said
Southern change, gonna come at last, now your crosses, are burning fast”
-Neil Young, Southern Man, 1970
Housing: In 1934 the National Housing Act was passed in an effort to stimulate the housing market during the Great Depression. Agents from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) took maps and drew red lines through neighborhoods they claimed to be, “high risk” in a practice known as Redlining.
In every major city, the only redlined neighborhoods were the ones populated by blacks and other minority groups. FHA agents felt that the people in these areas could not be trusted to pay back a loan, thus they denied their applications for the government-sponsored, low-interest mortgage rates.
In 1968, the Fair Housing Act banned housing discrimination on the basis of race. However, by this time the government was no longer offering these low-interest mortgages and there was the issue of cultural bias. The inability to buy homes for decades, a top way of accumulating equity and generational wealth, has put the black man another century behind the white man.
It is estimated that three out of four neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930’s are still struggling economically today. These neighborhoods often lack adequate resources such as banking, healthcare, public transportation services, affordable produce, job opportunities, and have underserved education systems due to local funding stemming from property taxes.
“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people, they’ve been abusing
The Mafia’s getting bugger, like pollution in the river, And you tell me this is where it’s at?”
-Sixto Rodriguez, This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues 1970
Education: In 1954 the Supreme Court decided in Brown vs Board of Education that segregation was unequal which made this a landmark case. A year later the court ruled in Brown vs Board of Education II that the lower courts and local school boards would be in charge of implementation desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” This last clause gave white supremacists all they needed to continue the unlawful practice of segregation.
One of the most disturbing and flagrant acts of defiance took place in Prince County, Virginia. Here county officials, with the aid of state officials, closed public schools for five years after Brown vs Board’s original ruling and opened “private academies” for only white students that were funded by the state’s tax revenue.
It is estimated that a decade after Brown vs Board of Education ninety-eight percent of black students still attended segregated schools. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act finally gave the federal government the power to enforce integration. The North Carolina high school I attended opened in 1972 with the specific purpose of integration. Eighteen years after the highest court in the land said segregation was illegal, county officials finally got around to upholding the law.
“Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway,
Don’t block up the hall, For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’, Will soon shake your windows, And rattle your wall”
– Bob Dylan, The Time’s They Are A-Changin’ 1964
Systematic Inequality: In 1967 President Johnson formed “The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” to determine why America had experienced over 150 race riots from 1964 to 1967. The eleven-member committee headed by Otto Kerner submitted their findings in March of 1968 in a report entitled, “A Time to Listen a Time to Act.”
More commonly known as the Kerner Report, it concluded that the extreme economic and social disadvantages of black Americans, coupled by the racial attitudes of whites caused the riots. The report was highly critical of the federal government and their outdated, failed policies.
“What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” -Kerner Report, 1968
The commission recommended that the federal government create legislation to improve housing conditions, education systems, job opportunities, and social services in black neighborhoods. They felt it was imperative to remove the discriminatory practices that inundated employment practices, police forces and the criminal justice system.
The commission deserves a round of applause for their candid conclusion and detailed solution strategy. However, Johnson never publicly endorsed the committee’s report and congressional action ranged from abysmal to meager when it came to implementing the committee’s recommendations.
“Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation, And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’, This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”
-Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction, 1965
This was the moment for America’s governing power to make a significant change, to right the wrongs of the past era, and to admit that America had a serious problem with racism.
The following month, on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, over 100 cities erupted in protest, yet the Kerner Report was ignored. Six months later, on November 5th, Nixon won the Presidency on a platform of more heavily armed police forces and cracking down on inner city crime. Rather than taking steps towards peace, America entered the war on drugs.
Today a statement from the Kerner Report reads like an eerie premonition come true: “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”
I realize it does not matter how many books I’ve read, history lectures I’ve attended, or the number of times I found myself in the minority while traveling aboard. I will never know the experience of being black in America. However, I believe we can learn from the past. Knowledge leads to new perspectives and understanding which creates empathy. Greater empathy is the key to creating a positive, fundamental change in our fractured society.
To those who are white, if you were never told the full story of America’s institutionalized racism and systematic oppression, that is not your fault, but it is also not an excuse. We must do better than those who came before us.
The human mind is wired to see a full picture even when some pieces are not present. Instead of realizing there are gaps, the mind will stretch the pieces of the picture it has been given to fill in the blanks, or simply invent new pieces that match their pre-existing opinion. Now that some blind spots have been replaced by missing puzzle pieces, it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge these uncomfortable truths, and work to ensure the same mistakes are not made again.
Let’s come together and tirelessly work to ensure if, ten years from now, someone wrote, We Didn’t Start the Fire Part II, it will not be marked by Santayana’s ill-fabled irony. We must listen to our fellow brothers, sisters, neighbors, and citizens that have been marginalized for centuries, and stand by their side in order to forbid history from repeating itself.
“When the power of love, overcomes the love of power the world will know peace”
– Jimi Hendrix
Rita Serra backpacked around the world for two and a half years, world, often solo, on a quest for human connection, cultural enlightenment, historical intrigue and nature’s wonderment. After her period of Rolling Stone embodiment, Rita found herself in Northern California where she currently spends her days writing prose, crafting poetry, photographing nature and farming. Some of Rita’s other work has been featured in anthologies by Flying Ketchup Press, Train River Publishing, and Wingless Dreamer.
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