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Veterans of the civil rights movement of the 1960s see similarities today


Many Americans feel they've never seen their country as divided as it is today. But some with longer memories recall the 1960s. The Vietnam War is widely seen today as a mistake. But opinions back then were deeply divided. The civil rights movement today is widely praised, but it drew fierce opposition back then. NPR's John Burnett examines today's divisions through the eyes of some veterans of the civil rights movement.

VALDA HARRIS MONTGOMERY: Hi, everybody. First, welcome to Montgomery. Second, welcome to Centennial Hill.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: And welcome to the Harris House. The home of brick and white siding where Valda Harris Montgomery grew up served as a refuge for civil rights legends like John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr.

MONTGOMERY: So if anybody has any questions, let me know.

BURNETT: She's giving an informal tour to a group of Episcopal seminarians from Austin. The house sits a few blocks from the state capitol, where Alabama Governor George Wallace vowed, segregation forever.

MONTGOMERY: This was the prominent African American neighborhood back in the 1800s. So it's going to be filled with Black history events, as well as civil rights events.

BURNETT: Inside the house, the third-floor strategy room, they called it, is unchanged from back in the day - same wood paneling, beige sofa and stereo system. Montgomery's mother served spaghetti to movement foot soldiers, like the Freedom Riders, who rode buses through the South, pursued by white mobs, to integrate interstate transportation. Her father, a pharmacist, brought them antiseptic and bandages when needed. Sixty years later, Harris cannot believe the nation is again torn asunder, that we were again at each other's throats.

MONTGOMERY: We thought we had gotten there in the '70s and the '80s. But we're so hate-filled that I'm just afraid that there's going to be some type of battle. You know, why do you hate Jewish people? Why do you hate Black people? Why do you hate LGBTQ people? How are they threatening you?

BURNETT: The people interviewed for this story, who played roles, major and minor, in the civil rights years, thought America had evolved beyond this.

MONTGOMERY: A lot of my friends, and that's what's - not just me, feel that we're just reliving the past, and that we have got to make sure that our children and our grandchildren understand that, that this is not new.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Those things ripped the country and families apart back then.

BURNETT: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian of the civil rights movement, Taylor Branch, is 75 years old. He's in the middle of writing a sweeping new book about the influence of race in all of American history.

BRANCH: I think we've always had extremely divisive issues. Right now, what we - I think that we lack is a more coherent, positive alternative. And that's what Dr. King and the civil rights movement provided.

BURNETT: Branch says civil rights activists showed an abiding faith in the public trust, much as the nation's founders did. They believed that this nation's experiment in self-government would take the place of violence and free us.

BRANCH: My view is that we are failing both the legacy of the founders in Philadelphia and the legacy of the re-founders in the civil rights era by allowing our politics to be so corroded and cynical.

BURNETT: One of the leaders in the struggle for racial equality was Bernard Lafayette. He participated in the Freedom Rides, the Selma voting rights campaign and the Nashville student lunch counter sit-ins.

BERNARD LAFAYETTE: I'm an expert on mean white folk. So if you want to know anything about mean white folks, you're looking at the right person.

BURNETT: Sitting regally at a conference table at Auburn University in Alabama, where he's a visiting scholar, Lafayette, 82 years old, smiles and savors the question, how would he compare the fault lines in the 1960s with the 2020s?

LAFAYETTE: Back in the '60s, whites had no inclination that Blacks could rise up in political power. So that is one of the things that has changed now. I think that today, it's more scared white folks. They have come to the conclusion that other minority groups can take over.

BURNETT: There was American separatism 60 years ago. But it wasn't red and blue, it was Black and white.

HANK SANDERS: Back in the '60s, they didn't call it polarization. They called it segregation.

BURNETT: Henry Sanders is a 79-year-old civil rights attorney, former student activist and retired state senator in Selma, Ala. Sanders, too, has been disheartened by the setbacks.

SANDERS: I was one of those people who were convinced that with the election of President Obama, race relationship was going to get better, because I said, you know, they'll see that he's an intelligent and capable man. He's got a wonderful wife and children. I was just shocked that it had the exact opposite reaction.

BURNETT: Police and civilian shootings of unarmed Black people, the massacre of Black worshippers in Charleston and Black supermarket shoppers in Buffalo, the last White House courting white nationalism and the Confederate battle flag paraded through the U.S. Capitol on January 6, new state voting restrictions transparently aimed at Democrat-leaning Black communities - to veterans of the movement, this is an old script, measurable progress followed by a backlash. Clayborne Carson is an emeritus history professor at Stanford University, director of the Martin Luther King Papers Project and once a civil rights militant in California. He's sitting in his backyard in Palo Alto.

CLAYBORNE CARSON: I don't think any of us who struggled to get civil rights and voting rights in the mid-1960s thought that this was going to lead to this huge political shift in America and that the winners, in a way, were the people who built their careers on that backlash. I don't think Richard Nixon would have won in 1968 if not for this backlash.

BURNETT: Forty-eight years later, Donald Trump would build his movement on a backlash to President Obama.

CARSON: The notion that in 2020s we would still be fighting over voting rights just didn't really occur to me. But here we are.

BURNETT: Here we are, back where we started, at the historic Harris House in Alabama. But rather than end on a pessimistic tone, Valda Montgomery says she's encouraged by all the people who tour her home who want to know this overlooked history.

MONTGOMERY: Groups that have come, people with a purpose. They want to be educated. And the majority of the groups are white groups or mixed groups. People are hungry for the actual story.

BURNETT: The story, of course, is not over. The country continues to search for that coherent, positive alternative, as Taylor Branch puts it, that will bring America out of its maelstrom.

John Burnett, NPR News, Montgomery, Ala.


As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.