It will be ironic if the tragedy at a little church in Charleston improves race relations in the United States while efforts to improve race relations that were conceived with the best of intentions have not been particularly successful. The perpetrator’s reported purpose was to instigate racial conflict. He appears to have achieved the exact opposite.
We have seen gracious expressions of forgiveness from relatives and friends of the victims. Across the land, governments and commercial institutions are re-thinking the wisdom of displaying a symbol of America’s greatest mistake, one that cost not fewer than 500,000 lives.
It is not unusual for human activities to produce some unforeseen consequences. Large government programs often do that. But activities that produce the exact opposite of the intended result are rare. The Confederate states attempt to secede from the United States for the purpose of preserving slavery caused the abolition of slavery — the exact opposite of the intended purpose of the attempted secession.
Slavery ended. Discrimination began. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” That quotation is from the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it became effective 145 years ago. Yet, politicians in some jurisdictions still attempt to subvert the law to prevent minority citizens from exercising their right to vote.
The landmark 1954 school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, held that discrimination against minority students is unconstitutional. Not everyone was convinced. President Eisenhower had to send U.S. Army troops to Arkansas to open the school doors to black students. There have been 20 additional Supreme Court decisions regarding a variety of attempts to avoid school desegregation. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear another case in 2016.
The late Strom Thurmond represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate for 48 years. At one point in his career, he campaigned for president on the blatantly racist, third-party “Dixiecrat” ticket. Senator Thurmond’s son, Paul Thurmond, is currently a South Carolina state senator. Senator Paul Thurmond recently addressed the South Carolina Senate advocating removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. Karen Tumulty quotes Senator Paul Thurmond in the June 30 Washington Post: “I am aware of my heritage, but my appreciation for the things my forebears accomplished to make my life better does not mean that I must believe that they always made the right decisions. And for the life of me, I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based in part on the desire to continue the practice of slavery.” We do change.
Fears and hatreds of other people based on religion or differences in appearance or customs are a part of human history and still exist worldwide. The British, mistaking their military clout and long domination of India for wisdom, orchestrated the partitioning of India to separate Hindus from Muslims. Separation did not diminish the animosities between the two groups, and now both India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals to nurture their separate but armed status.
Kodak once dominated the world market for camera film. During that time, one of Kodak’s engineers made a presentation to the corporate officers revealing his design for an “electric” camera. The corporate officers were not impressed. Does your iPhone use camera film? We are all officers of the human corporation listening to a presentation for racial justice in America.
Jack Stevenson is now retired from military service. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).