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Front Porch: Big ideas of ’63 fall on hard times

The summer of 1963 was such a heady time in America.

On Aug. 28 of that year – 50 years ago this week – the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., the nation was on the verge of passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and so much looked so hopeful for so many.

It was a big enough thing on its own, this push for civil rights for black Americans, but that summer everything felt even bigger. America felt bigger. Possibilities and opportunities felt bigger. It felt like we could do better in all things, be better people. We were allowing ourselves to dare to think big thoughts.

I had just graduated from Miami Edison High School and was spending summer at home teaching swimming before I left for the University of Florida. We knew segregation in Miami, but the struggle against it was not yet as volatile as it was elsewhere in the South. Our schools were in the process of being integrated, from the lower grades up. Ostensibly my high school was still all white, but the rising number of Cuban students in our ranks, plus the one Alaska Native boy in our graduating class, made the segregated label more and more a fiction.

My high school was located in the Lemon City section of Miami, an area predominantly populated by African-Americans, whose children went to Booker T. Washington High School farther from home rather than to Edison right next door. The city pool where my school’s swim team practiced was more rigidly segregated than the high school until a group of African-American residents quietly and consistently picketed outside the gate, and the policy changed.

When I got to Gainesville, I encountered more strident picketing outside segregated restaurants and movie theaters, and I also witnessed cross burnings on people’s lawns. Even so, the tide was turning.

During our college years a friend of mine, an African-American, and I talked a lot about what was going on in America. We spoke openly about all the issues of the day, more openly than I think I’d be comfortable doing with anyone, of any race, now. I remember being shocked when she told me she felt that very moment, the mid-1960s in the South, was absolutely the best time in history to be black in America. And not only that, she said, but it was even better to be dark hued like she was, or as she put it, “Martin Luther King black.”

She laughed when she saw how stunned I was at her words. No, no, she said, this was the moment when it was possible to grab hold, to make progress, individually and as groups, to find and make opportunity and to get ahead and to fulfill America’s promise as well. This was the time when America was awakening to the potential of all its people, when anything was possible.

Like I said, a heady time. I don’t mean to paint it in hazy, rosy colors, however. I am well aware of the violence that happened before and was happening again, of the terrible history and mean spirits and the fear. Still, it was a time when change was palpable – and it was electric.

I am happy to say that things did work out well for my friend. She worked in journalism for a time, got a law degree and has done some international work, including with Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We’ve lost touch over time, so I don’t know how things are with her today, but I suspect they’re well.

Still, it is now 50 years after that golden summer when King motivated the nation, and I am so disheartened with what this summer feels like when compared with that one.

Look at voting rights, for example. The momentum has shifted to those who are working to disenfranchise people who vote differently than they do. With the same fervor at work in 1963 to open the voting booths to all, they are working – and with considerable success – to close them. It’s not about being fair and ensuring that everyone has a say; it’s all about winning elections. Laws and voting procedures are getting narrower. Election commissions are being packed with the “correct” people. Voting is getting harder.

OK, we don’t have a poll tax or literacy test any more, but there’s more than one way to achieve the same end. I hate that we’re doing that. I hate that we can’t talk to one another very well any more, about anything. Even the weather is a hot-button topic. I hate the estrangement that has come with some friends back home because we vote differently. That feeling of coming together has been replaced with feelings of coming apart.

Sure, it’s difficult to sustain the energy and optimism of our youth, but instead of continuing to expand our thinking and expand our horizons, as a nation we now seem to be about shrinking, about isolating ourselves (self-segregating) into our special interest pods, about reaching backward and closing the door behind us once we get there. And I don’t quite understand where “there” is and how it’s a better place to be.

I mark this summer’s anniversary with some sadness as I no longer feel that so much looks so hopeful for so many. We are no longer thinking big thoughts. And I hate that, too.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at