I grew up in Denver, Colorado at a time when its population was 2.4% black and the state as a whole was 98.5% white. My first encounter with racial segregation came in a 1957 trip to the nation's capital, when I saw "white" and "colored" drinking fountains in a small Virginia town. I followed the civil rights movement with sympathy but never put myself at risk -- as did one of my high school friends who was badly beaten at Selma.
I later worked for crusading liberals, even did political organizing in Tennessee in 1968, but my professional interests were in foreign policy, not racial justice. I feel ashamed that I didn't do more for the cause.
Today I'm angry, not about what I failed to do, but at what I failed to know. Only now, reading a fine book on the Roosevelt-Truman years, Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself, did I learn how bad things really were before World War II.
Katznelson's main themes [so far, in my reading] are that FDR and the Congress saved America from dictatorship and fascism by their cooperative response to the Great Depression, and that southern Democrats dominated several congresses and used their power to preserve white supremacy even when they enacted otherwise progressive legislation.
But at what a cost! Southern Democrats insisted that New Deal social legislation not apply to maids or farmworkers, the kinds of jobs that 2/3 of southern blacks held. They wrote the laws giving discretionary power to state and local entities to distribute the federal benefits, discriminating as they saw fit. They blocked anti-lynching laws with FDR's support.
As late as 1938, only 4% of blacks were allowed to vote in the southern states.
I never knew until now how bad things were. I should have.