Ken Herman: Civil rights, civic responsibility

April 11, 2014 

God, in addition to many other fine qualities, has a wicked sense of humor. The three divine jokes with the direst outcomes:

I'll put lots of oil where the craziest people live: the Middle East and Texas.

I'll make it fun to make babies.

I'll make people of all different colors and see how that works out.

That last one hasn't worked out well, hence, the LBJ Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit. At its heart is the 1964 legislation that, on paper, equalized everybody in the eyes of the law. Fifty years later, the law's still there. So is the goal.

"We accept self-congratulations about the wonderful 50th anniversary, which is wonderful," Jimmy Carter said here Tuesday. "But we feel like Lyndon Johnson did it and we don't have to do anything anymore."

The to-do list includes equality of opportunity. Author Todd Purdum, moderating a Wednesday panel, spoke of "this enduring gap."

The oversimplified path to middle classdom goes like this: Finish high school, don't have kids until you're married or in a committed relationship, don't get married or commit to a relationship until you're 21, obey the law, get a full-time job.

On Wednesday, I asked Andrew Young why this doesn't seem to work for large numbers of African-Americans.

"It doesn't work for anybody today," Young said. "It doesn't work because the system is rigged against poor people."

Yes, the full-time job part today is a challenge for folks of all colors. But the family-related ones seem doable, though seemingly disproportionately challenging to African-Americans. Barack Obama, uniquely qualified by race and position, spoke of it in the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that accelerated the arc that put a black man in the White House. He talked of the need to "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."

In a 2008 Father's Day speech that sang the praise of dads, Obama said: "If we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that too many fathers … have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men … You and I know how true this is in the African-American community."

"We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception," he said.

Equality self-help is a touchy topic, one that NFL great Jim Brown said takes "a lot of courage" to raise.

"I think 100 percent that African-Americans should be doing so much more than we do," Brown said. "We can complain and we can play ball and use the media and all of these things. But … we have statistics that say we can be the worst enemies to our community in that we have a higher rate of fathers not being with their biological children.

"We have a lot of work to do as African-Americans. It has nothing to do with anybody else. It isn't because of slavery. It's not because of anything. It's because of us and the fact that we do not apply ourselves the way we should," Brown said, ending by thanking me for the question "because that question will relieve the minds of a lot of people who think we are always pointing our fingers and never pointing our fingers at ourselves."

Young addressed it thusly: "Players end up poor. Family men end up generating wealth. You can be a rich player, but you won't be playing for long." He placed the blame on the lack of family planning education in schools.

No demographic has a monopoly on irresponsible behavior. But the words of Obama and Brown and Young are worth remembering as we celebrate laws that tried to bridge the unconscionable gap between the majesty of "all men are created equal" and the disgrace of the slaveowners who signed the world-changing document that declared that noble concept.

Fifty years after LBJ shepherded landmark civil rights legislation through a reluctant Congress, we're indeed closer to where he wanted to take us, but we're not there yet. The summit consensus is that there's much to do, collectively and individually.

For some, that includes the realization that changing other people's attitudes and everybody's laws can be easier than changing our own behavior.

Ken Herman, Austin American-Statesman: kherman@statesman.com.

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