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How the 1964 Civil Rights Act cost Black America

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How the 1964 Civil Rights Act cost Black America

Who could have foreseen that the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which outlawed racial segregation – would spark an exodus by African-Americans to white suburbs, and cause the decline of black neighbourhoods across America? Leslie Goffe examines the issues.

 As a result of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the black middle class were able to live wherever they wanted and could afford. Consequently, they fled inner city areas like Chicago’s South Side and Washington DC’s U Street Corridor neighbourhoods where they had been safe from the hostile white world. They were drawn to the white suburbs. 

The black neighbourhoods had established black-owned cinemas, black-run churches and black mutual aid societies, but the black middle class gave up this black independence for the chance to move into America’s lilywhite suburbs. They were eager to live in the integrated America that Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. had spoken so eloquently, and tantalisingly, of in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. 

But not everyone embraced King’s integrationist views. “This is a white man’s country,” Malcolm X said in a 1963 interview. “The Negro is nothing but an ex-slave who is now trying to get himself integrated into the slave master’s house.”

The black writer James Baldwin described integration as a “burning house” that he had no desire to live in. Author of the book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin said he would “rather die than become what most white people in this country (America) have become.”

The chief opponents of integration were, of course the die-hard racist Southern whites like Richard Russell, a Georgia Congressman, who promised, but failed, to block the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “We will resist to the bitter end any measure … to bring about social equality and intermingling… of the races in our (Southern) states,” Russell proclaimed weeks before integration became the law of the land in 1964. 

Speaking at an event in April commemorating the Civil Rights Act, President Obama said it opened doors for millions of Americans like him. “They swung open for you and they swung open for me. That’s why I’m standing here today.” Eager for the doors to swing open and hungry for their piece of the proverbial American pie, African-Americans had believed their road to success began in America’s suburbs. 

They did not move to these suburbs in order to live next door to whites, they told anyone who asked. They had simply wanted to get away from inner city slums and into squeaky clean new homes in the suburbs. And yes, there were black businesses and wealthy blacks who had fancy houses in the ghetto, but most black people there, they pointed out, lived in rat and roach infested tenements that were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. 

But this black exodus robbed the black inner cities of some of its best and brightest, and denied these black communities black dollars with the black middle class now spending their disposable income in white business places in the white suburbs.

With their core consumers gone, and unable to cope with competition from white businesses in the city, black businesses began, one after another, shutting up shop. This simply added to the steady decline of former black neighbourhoods. Black-owned real estate firms closed. So did black-owned hotels and insurance companies. Black-run hospitals lost black physicians and nurses, while black law firms lost black lawyers. Black universities and colleges lost out as well.

Set up in the 1860s to educate former slaves, the so-called Historically Black Colleges and Universities, among them Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, were educated, saw their enrollment of black students drop precipitously.

Many African-Americans say all this was a very high price to pay for integration. Asked their views of integration, many African-Americans that New African spoke to said that although they would not wish to return to the apartheid-like segregation in the US, integration had not, they said, delivered much of what it promised. 

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