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Opinion

Brown made diversity a priority

In the newspaper look of the day, the front page of The Spokesman-Review on May 17, 1954, contained 15 to 20 stories — most under one-column headlines — and a couple of black and white photographs.

Near the center of the page, a wire item filed by the Associated Press from Louisville, Ky., related an outrage that reminds us today of the temper of those times.

An electrical contractor named Andrew E. Wade IV wanted to buy a house that his wife had fallen in love with. There was a problem, though. The Wades were black and the house was in a white neighborhood.

When a white friend purchased the house and transferred the deed to Wade, the builder was furious. But the couple and their 2-year-old daughter moved in without trouble.

For a day.

On the second afternoon, they came home to find a large front window had been smashed by rocks. In the evening, as Wade watched, five men erected and burned a cross on an adjoining lot. That night, while a friend was dozing on the couch, at least six gunshots struck the house, one of them narrowly missing the guest.

The almost matter-of-fact news story made no mention of whether anyone had been arrested or, indeed, if authorities were even investigating the incident.

The next day’s front page moved on to a more prominent and more positive story that had been breaking while Spokane read about the Wades. This second story, from Washington, D.C., would be news for days — decades, actually. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that school desegregation was unconstitutional. Separate accommodations for children of different races were inherently unequal, according to the decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.

School segregation was not about to die with a pen stroke. Resistance to the ruling and obstruction of its implementation was so fierce that in some cases whole school systems were shut down rather than open the doors to allow black and white children to learn together.

For the record, The Spokesman-Review editorial page commended the decision as the only finding the court could have reached, but cautioned both the federal government and civil rights leaders against unrealistic demands for immediate change.

“This is a time when responsible leaders of the south, both white and Negro, must be on guard against the agitators who would like to wipe out the progress of the last 90 years,” the editorial declared.

In the 50 years that ensued we have learned a lot that might have stunned observers in 1954. The turmoil of the ‘60s, of Watts and Detroit, of Selma and Birmingham, of Mississippi burning, of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., of Rodney King and Simi Valley — all those episodes underscore how much was left undone by that seismic Supreme Court ruling in 1954. Certainly the Inland Northwest, about as remote from the segregationist South as you can get, has had its own taste of bigotry.

As the ethnic diversity of society accelerates, here and nationally, conscientious citizens recognize there’s much more to be done. Energetically promoting greater civil rights and diversity won’t erase past progress. Failure to do so, however, will only delay the day we can say we’ve arrived.

 

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