Racism and Its Origins

Excerpt from “Stories From the Front Lines of Integration Toledo, Ohio and Milwaukee, Wisconsin 1965–1979” available @ Amazon.com and www.leemcmurrin.com .

By Lee R. McMurrin, Ph.D.

Abraham Lincoln said many times, in his speeches and debates on slavery, that if slavery is not wrong, nothing in this world is wrong. And I was quoted many times saying that segregation was the worst thing that ever happened to America’s children. Slavery of the “colored people” (the term commonly used in earlier times) in America is the backdrop to segregation in all of its forms. Slavery formed the attitudes upon which segregation was established. Slaveholders viewed the colored people in the same category as animals, which was the way the Supreme Court of the United States viewed them in some of their decisions. Lincoln, in his debates with Steven Douglas, stated that they were human beings and should be granted the rights and privileges that were granted to citizens of the United States in the documents of the founding fathers.

As a young man, Lincoln and a young friend took farm produce on a barge down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. It was there that he saw for the first time black Africans chained to posts, being examined, as you would farm animals ready for sale. He never lost this image of inhuman treatment in his mind and pledged to do something about if he ever had the opportunity.

Before the civil war the US Supreme Court ruled that slaveholders could take their slaves, cows, horses, and all their property, including their black mistresses, into the newly formed states in the western territories. Abolitionists found this abhorrent, expanding the slaveholding states beyond the original set in the South. Some of the founding fathers thought that slavery would die off over time if it were confined to a set of states in the South.

It is clearly obvious that, even after the terrible Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the former confederate states would work diligently in every way to restrict the rights of the colored population by passing laws to keep them separate in all aspects of life. The US Supreme Court helped to keep and perpetuate this doctrine by establishing the policy of Separate but Equal. This doctrine, adopted by the highest court in the land, flowed from the Plessey vs. Ferguson Case, which applied directly to segregated coaches on the passenger trains. But, this case was used to justify those laws and customs that segregated all aspects of social life, including schools. There was a jurist on the case who wrote the minority opinion, believing that this decision would cause racial unrest in America which would last more than a hundred years. That prediction turned out to be true. He also observed that white coaches and colored coaches separated and restricted the freedoms of citizens of the United States, but Asians, who had most recently been declared by Congress as non-citizens, were permitted to ride in either coach.

The attitudes that supported slavery were consistent with the attitudes that supported segregation. African Americans were thought to be inferior to white Americans and, when separated by race, the African Americans were placed in an inferior position, which perpetuated the superiority feelings of white Americans. This affected the lives of children who were growing up in this unfavorable position to begin to believe they were inferior to others. Therefore, on many occasions in my presentations on the need for integration, I expressed over and over that segregation was the worst thing that ever happened to America’s children. The segregation laws were strictly enforced to keep the races separate, but the equal part adopted by the court was never enforced or even observed. There were individuals who tried sincerely to make situations equal, but it was impossible to make it happen. Separate is never equal.

For example, during the 1960’s I had numerous opportunities to observe school situations in the South. On one occasion in southern Georgia I was given a tour of a rural county and the new school construction. I first saw a school bus coming down a country dirt road. The front fenders were loose and flopping up and down as the bus went over bumps in the road. It was very noisy with an engine that was not hitting on all the cylinders and the muffler must have been damaged. This was the bus that was transporting black children to their new school. Then came the well maintained school bus transporting white children to their new school. The bus looked like it was new and went quietly over the bumpy country road. This was obviously separate but not equal treatment.

I subsequently visited the new school, at the invitation of my father-in-law, built for all the white children in the county. There were separate buildings for primary, intermediate, middle and high school programs, all on one campus. The design was modern with color and construction appropriate for the different grade levels. The buildings were constructed of brick with overhangs and cement walkways and driveways with curbs and blacktop pavement. The landscaping was lacking, which would have added to the beauty of the site, but maybe that was to come later.
Conditions for separate but equal, which were intrinsically unequal, were common in the South, which was the result of de jure segregation- segregation by law. But conditions which may not be as stark as the example given above were present in the North, which was the result of de facto segregation. Racial prejudice was not confined to the South. As I will point out in the stories from my own experience as a school administrator in two northern cities, these prejudices caused individuals and groups to take positions that promoted the separation of the races, which resulted in unequal treatment of school children. On a number of occasions I heard the same justification for the unequal treatment: that this would be a waste of the taxpayer’s money and some legislators would recommend cutting the state support of city schools.

Slavery provided the attitudes that became the backdrop to segregation and the attitudes which it perpetuated. One cannot enslave another human being without it affecting your way of thinking and the attitudes which follow. It is well known that a feeling of superiority existed among the white population, and feelings of inferiority were installed in the minds of the minority population. It’s unfortunate that these attitudes still persist today among some people and, in particular, children. The CNN TV channel ran a series on this subject, in which black children examining dolls thought the black dolls were not very bright, and also were more akin to being violent. This is so unfortunate, that in America these feelings still persist.

Conditions for separate but equal, which were intrinsically unequal, were common in the South, which was the result of de jure segregation, segregation by law. But conditions which may not be as stark as the example given above were present in the North, which was the result of de facto segregation. Racial prejudice was not confined to the South. As I will point out in the stories from my own experience as a school administrator in two northern cities, these prejudices caused individuals and groups to take positions that promoted the separation of the races, which resulted in unequal treatment of school children. On a number of occasions I heard the same justification for the unequal treatment: that this would be a waste of the taxpayer’s money and some legislators would recommend cutting the state support of city schools.

Slavery provided the attitudes that became the backdrop to segregation and the attitudes which it perpetuated. One cannot enslave another human being, without it affecting your way of thinking and the attitudes which follow. It is well know that a feeling of superiority existed among the white population, and feelings of inferiority were installed in the minds of the minority population. It’s unfortunate that these attitudes still persist today among some people and, in particular, children. The CNN TV channel ran a series on this subject, in which black children examining dolls thought the black dolls were not very bright, and also were more akin to being violent. This is so unfortunate, that in America these feelings still persist.

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on November 05, 2014

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