Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the American Civil Rights Act, and you might wonder, after half a century, why the act was needed.
I will tell you why, at least from my viewpoint. It was because of a sign — a carefully hand-lettered sign posted high on a utility pole next to a road leading to (or from, as the case may be) Columbia, Mo. Asking your pardon for using its graphic language, here is what the sign said:
“Nigger don’t let the sun set on your head in this town.”
That sign was on that pole the year I first went to Columbia, to attend the University of Missouri, which had been the first state university to integrate after World War II. Columbia had — and still has — two other institutions of higher learning; they are Stephens College and Christian College (now Columbia College), both distinguished small colleges for women.
One would think that with all those academic credentials, a sign such as that would have been pulled down long before I saw it. But it wasn’t.
One would think that the distinguished black athletes on the Mizzou football team would have torn that sign down. But they didn’t.
One could believe that racism in a town such as Columbia would not have the protected status of acceptance. But it did.
Missouri had a long tradition of doing the wrong thing when it came to racism. During the Civil War, it was a border state, but it wanted to be Confederate. Back when I lived there (not during the Civil War, of course), if the South had risen again, Missouri — or at least the part where I lived — probably would have risen with it.
Given all that, though, the people of Missouri were kind, generous and downright funny. They were less racist than many northern cities had become.
But whenever I begin to wonder why we needed a Civil Rights Act, my thoughts always go back to that sign. A sign outside the city limits of a city full of well-educated and decent people.
I once asked someone who was a Columbia native and a Stephens student about the sign.
“It’s always been there,” she said. “I don’t think anybody’s ever thought about taking it down.” She accepted racism as she accepted the college she attended in the city — it was there.
Perhaps that’s why we needed a Civil Rights Act. It was too easy for the majority of us to accept the insults the minorities had to live with.