Culture and Society

How much progress has the U.S. made in civil rights?
Answered by Dr. Calvin O. Butts III
  • Dr. Calvin O. Butts III

    Dr. Calvin O. Butts III

  1. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III President of State University of New York College at Old Westbury, Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the City of New York


    We've come a very long way. And I'm not sure how this is – 2011? Fifty years since the Freedom Rides. I was in Mississippi just a few weeks ago. Flew down. Everybody, white, black, "Sir, are you all right?" This, that and the other, the hospitality was wonderful. That was not the experience of the Freedom Riders. Admittedly, I flew down, but in those days I think they would have bombed the plane too, burned it, beaten people getting off of it – certainly on the buses, public transportation segregation. Fifty years. Most of the towns in Mississippi at that time – probably all of them were led by white mayors. Most of the towns in Mississippi today I think are led by black mayors.

    A long way. Look at the White House. Whatever we may say about the policies, whether it's real change, it's a black man sitting there. Barack Obama. The Congressional Black Caucus has grown. Charles Rangel, even though he's out, was chair of Ways and Means. These things cannot be dismissed. They must be looked at in the reality. Major cities, David Dinkins in New York, White in Cleveland, in Philadelphia -- oh, boy. Please don't get mad at me mayor because I couldn't remember. But even prior to that, there have been black mayors in other towns, cities.

    So it's huge progress, and these are all obvious examples. I think we can go down. I think his name is Darden who's at that – Darden Restaurants is led by a black man. Of course, Ken Chenault at American Express and Richard Parsons who was at Time-Warner and Citicorp. And then, there are others, black women who are in key positions, leaders in commerce in industry. You didn't see that. That's the result of the civil rights movement. I mean, presidents of colleges and universities. At Brown, the young woman who is there. It's tremendous. Professors teaching in not only philosophy and religion but in the sciences. Luminaries like Cornel West.

    We couldn't get into those schools, much less teach in them, much less hold chairs or have the prominence in media. If you just look at media, no matter what value judgment you put on it, you've got all of these record and movie producers who are out there. The young man who is Madea in so many of these movies. And you've got the Russell Simmonses of the world. A huge distance.

    But we haven't learned. Why is it – curiosity – yet how to get along with each other? Why do people think – and even if they don't believe it, why do they even say that Barack Obama was not born in the United States? Why do they hate him simply because of the color of his skin? Obviously, he is doing at least as well as any other president has done, and, some of us would argue, better. Why can't we find a way to overcome some of this bigotry and racism? It's no longer obvious like the back of the bus or keeping us out because of racial quotas in certain areas and restrictions that you can't live in this neighborhood or voting laws and such.

    No, it's now amorphous. It's more institutionalized, and it's a lot more personal. People are more politically correct. They don't say things. They smile at you and then do something entirely different. Why? I'm not different from you. I've demonstrated in every way that I can compete and even surpass in some instances. But yet, when resources become scarce, people being to scapegoat again rather than – look, Shirley Sherrod, I think her first name was Shirley – who was cut to pieces on the Internet by snipping and pasting. It was presented that she said something she didn't say. Why would people do that to her?

    When she was in fact saying that poor whites and poor blacks ought to get together, which is about right, and begin to rail against the kind of economic discrimination and political discrimination coming down on poor people. What keeps us – what are we afraid of? We know now, Skip Gates and so many other people are doing these kinds of investigations into our ancestry, spinning the test tube. Let me tell you that your great grandfather was a white man. Or your great grandfather – you think you're a white man – was really a black man. Or your father was a black man, for that matter. You never knew him, but this is what this shows. Oh, my God.

    More answers from Dr. Calvin O. Butts III »

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