A few days ago, we reached the 84th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley. It’s hard to image an elderly Elvis. One of my coworkers was talking with a younger co-worker and asked if she knew who Elvis was. She said yes, but then could not remember one of his songs.
Many of the men and women who shaped the 20th century are gone. Some of them were gone too soon. It’s hard to imagine that John F. Kennedy would be approaching his 102nd birthday this year. He is forever frozen in my mind as the young man of 46 who was gunned down in Dallas in 1963.
This week, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 90. He died in 1968 at the age of 39.
When we see those who worked with him, such as Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery and others, we see a group of elderly men.
We’ve reached the point that many now only know what happened in the second half of the century through history books.
For a large segment of our populations, first-hand knowledge of segregation and the civil rights movement comes from grandparents or even great-grandparents.
My dad was a World War II veteran. I didn’t fully understand his medals until a friend helped me. I knew he was awarded a purple heart for being shot. But he also had two oak leaf clusters, meaning he was shot three times.
Like a lot of men who served in the war, he didn’t want to talk about it. He would watch movies like “Patton” and “Battle of the Bulge.” He would simply say, “It wasn’t quite like that.”
We don’t think about it, but World War II was a part of the catalyst behind the Civil Rights movement. Young black men, many of whom had never ventured far beyond the county where they were born, were suddenly scattered to various parts of the world. They saw U.S. cities and world capitals and knew there was a better life beyond the South.
When they returned from the war, many loaded up their families and headed to the industrial north where they found jobs in manufacturing plants that provided a good wage with benefits. Others used their GI benefits and became the first in their family to get a college education. They became doctors, teachers and lawyers.
In Dearborn, a suburb of the auto capital of Detroit, is the Henry Ford Museum.
It is more than a car museum, although it has many of those and not just Fords.
Among the exhibits is the actual bus ridden by Rosa Parks in Montgomery. It has been restored and you can actually sit in the seat she occupied.
I thought of it the other day as I watched a bus filled with passengers riding on a downtown Atlanta street. Metaphorically, they can go as far they want without someone telling them they cannot go further because of the color of their skin.
I hope that those who teach history can convey the massive change that took place not so long ago. However, as we move along in our historical ride, we must depend on the written and recorded word. I hope we can preserve it so that all can understand how much we have truly changed.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose column publishes on Sunday Life page and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.