Civil rights a work in progress

By Margaret Brinson, Managing Editor

In South Africa, it is easy some days to forget you are anywhere but at home. Perhaps in Dallas or Detroit, or any other moderately large city in the United States. Urbanized and English-speaking, Johannesburg life is familiar, easy. And then, in a moment, the illusion shatters and the culture shock that had not quite hit before comes on quickly, double-dose, because you have been living over¬seas for a month now and you just realized things are different than they are at home.

My moment came on a Wednesday night in June. A bunch of us were outside watching the sky — it was the night of the lunar eclipse. Slowly, the moon drew farther and farther into the dark. We made small talk as we waited and watched. The group was a mixed bunch of both white and black South Africans, as well as a few immigrants from the Republic of Congo and, of course, the Americans — all three of us. I was listening to bits of a conversation between two South African 20-somethings to my right; one black, one white.

“You know,” the young white man said. “You’re the first black person I ever spoke to.”

If that was not enough of a shock to my polite, politically correct palate, later it came out that this “first” for him occurred at the age of 10. Ten years old, and he had never had a friend or neighbor that was anything but European-descended white.

And then I remembered: segregation in South Africa did not come to an end in the 1960s, like ours in America did. In fact, the ‘60s could be claimed the heyday of Apartheid, the government-enforced strict segregation of society that stretched from 1948 all the way to 1994 — a good 30 years behind our own civil rights movement.

So what gives South Africa, an integrated society for only 17 years, an attitude so similar to that found in the United States today, where the rights of all have been allegedly equal for roughly 50 years? Perhaps we, too, ought to have been able to do in 17 years what has taken a half-century to accomplish. To have done in one generation what has taken us three.

There are a number of reasons things played out differently in South Africa.

Some may credit the African spirit, the swift change in government and that new administration’s wisdom and grace in, thus far, steer¬ing clear of the mode of Mugabe. After being elected president of the formerly colonized Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe began controversial programs such as land redistribution, evicting white farmers from their homes and plots under the pretense of returning the land to the “real” Africans — those with darker skin.

Nelson Mandela’s lifestyle of grace and policy of reconciliation was certainly different than the early American politicians who reluctantly passed civil rights. Not only was a member of the persecuted class bringing about equality, as opposed to the white government in America, but he was doing it in a spirit of togetherness. He downplayed any “us against them” mentality and promoted rebuilding the nation as a white and black nation together.

There are many reasons why the two countries are hardly comparable. But I think it is still worth wondering why South African society progressed at a quicker pace than our own, and how we might be able to emu¬late their example when facing tough issues in the future.

I do not mean to discredit the efforts of those who fought for civil rights in the ‘60s, those who endured integration and took courageous stands for what is right. But somehow, despite the bravery of those who fought on the front lines of civil rights, something fell through the cracks.

On paper, our nation may have made huge steps toward equality, but it is attitudes that concern me. A Rasmussen Reports survey conducted in January of this year found 55 percent of Americans still do not think our country is a land of equal opportunity. Prejudice can be wiped clean from our constitution and the way we run our businesses and schools, but it can live on in the heart.

I cannot help but be inspired by the generation that took ownership of the racial problem in South Africa and pushed for reconciliation not just politically, but personally too.

When it comes to social justice today, whether it be issues of racial inequality, the environment, or modern-day slavery and buying from sweatshop-produced labor, there is no time to waste.

We owe it to the world and to the generations to come — we need to right our own wrongs.

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The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.