Awakened by their new experiences in Europe during World War II, black Americans returned home to find second-class citizenship increasingly unacceptable. But the postwar fight for equal rights and opportunity in the 1950s and early 1960s was met with murder and abuse.
In 1955, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till, killed in Mississippi by men who charged he whistled at a white woman, outraged blacks and whites and heightened American anger at lynchings and other forms of brutality against blacks.
Through the media, America and the world learned of jeering crowds of whites who spat upon and threw garbage at black children desegregating Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957; of the gangland-style murder of NAACP official Medgar Evers, killed in 1963 for expressing his beliefs; and of the deaths of four small black girls in a Birmingham, Ala., church firebombing in 1963. A rage among blacks sent cries of "Freedom Now!" echoing across the country.
Those who fought for justice and equality hoped to secure a better future for coming generations. Ironically, some who protested 20 years ago are worried today that some of the victories they won may be shortlived. They also are concerned that, across the board, blacks are relatively worse off today than they were in the past. Their fears are supported in part by the 1980 U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey that shows that the gap between median incomes of black families and white families was greater in 1980 than it was a decade earlier.
After 300 years of brutality, racism and believing that they had to be "twice as good to get half as far," many blacks had become so determined to win equality that death was no longer a threat that could keep them in line. They marched, singing, "I'd rather be buried in my grave than to live as a slave," and in doing so pricked the conscience of a nation.
After the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, America entered an era of violence, widely covered by television, in which Americans could see whole sections of cities destroyed by rioting, and the sorrowful events surrounding the deaths of other national leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Frustration and impatience produced a new militancy and an era of cultural awareness.
"Negroes" and "colored people" became "blacks," as a generation began to accept and appreciate themselves, their history and the dream of a black American revolution. Although some literally favored armed combat, for the majority of blacks, the revolution was fought in the battlegrounds of their minds, slaying the negative images of centuries of slavery and segregation. Blacks began to recognize proudly the civilizations they had built in Africa, and their contributions to America and the nations of Europe.
The growing awareness of past culture effected a change not only in attitudes, but in the daily lives of young blacks. Generational differences split some families apart, with older blacks, for example, unable to understand why younger ones changed their names from Anglican to African. Young blacks put on dashikis and stopped straightening their hair to wear it naturally in Afros. A few spouted revolutionary poetry about "killing anyone who got in the way of the revolution."
"I just thought it was unnecessary," said Arlington resident Inez Waynes, 62, who questioned the motives of her nieces and nephews. "We knew we were black, they [whites] knew we were black. Just what were they were trying to prove and to whom?"
"It was an opportunity to be assertive," said Philip M. King, 30, a grant and contract specialist at the National Science Foundation, who attended Howard University during the 1968 student takeover. "It was the first time we had a chance to make a contribution, and we wanted to effect change--yesterday!
"My father wasn't really against it," said King, a Suitland, Md. resident. "He wanted change but he was more conservative. He favored the methods of people like Whitney Young [first executive director of the National Urban League], the commissions, committee meetings--going through the system."
In 1969, after a steady rise, black median income began to decline, and blacks began to openly distrust the motives of white America. The once-powerful civil rights movement, without Dr. King, drifted like a ship without a rudder.
Heralded as a decade of political promise, in which some activists gave up street protests and sought change within the economic and political system, the 1970s proved to be a decade of losses. Supreme Court decisions weakened the drive for affirmative action and school desegregation remedies. The 30-year-old civil rights coalition began to dissolve.
Meanwhile, some of the people who had been activists in the 1950s and '60s began to worry as they grew older that their own children were not learning from the past.
Some parents say that their children are too young to remember the humiliation of sitting in the back of the bus, too sheltered to know the wall of racism, and too willing to accept the theory that civil rights issues are resolved and dead. Some blame the children, others blame the times in which we live.
"I took my kid to every civil rights march, every meeting, everything. She grew up with the movement around her. But now the problems of blacks have nothing to do with her," said one longtime District civil rights activist, who asked not to be named.
"I don't understand it," she said. "I tried to keep her from the pain of racism . . . . If I had to do it over again, I'd let her feel a little more pain."
Educators, like Russell Adams, chairman of Howard University's Afro-American Studies Department, say some parents dropped the ball.
"There is a normal amount of [information] slippage in each generation," said Adams. "But what we see here is abnormal slippage. Probably from parents who didn't want their kids to be embarrassed about slavery."
Other District parents, like Philip King's mother, Helen, "just forgot."
"I just assumed they were getting it in school as I had," said Helen King, who attended Dunbar High School. "Then one day our youngest son came home and said he had just learned the Negro National Anthem and I was shocked. I had known this practically all my life. Then I checked with one of my older sons and he didn't learn it until he got to Howard."
"Most of the students who went to Dunbar came from families where both parents worked," said Georgetown University Law School professor Eleanor Holmes Norton, noting that the two-worker family was not the problem. "The difference today is the population has changed."
"The black community in Washington had always been a small close-knit unit, where educational achievement and community service were honored," Norton said. She also said that the influx of migrant workers and the blossoming of Washington during the Kennedy years had turned Washington into an urban area with the problems of many other large American cities.
Anita Brown, a District resident, said she realized the need for her children to know more about black culture and history. She said she enrolled them in a day-care center specializing in African culture.
"The kids recited 'We are children of Mother Africa' every day," she said. "But they closed the center so we started one of our own: 'Black Inc.' "
Brown said her children later teased her about her commitment to teach them about their culture. "My kids tell me I had a dashiki on everything but the toaster!"
Despite efforts to heighten children's awareness, some parents interviewed said there are some attitudes and perceptions that can't be taught.
"Parents wants kids to realize what we went through, from sitting at the counter, to being beat on the head, to having dogs set on you," said Arlington resident Edwina Carpenter, Waynes' niece. "They're going to have to go out there and be twice as good as the white guys to make it.
"Parents fear that kids are not strong enough to stand up to these forces and survive," she said. "The fear is not that they would let the movement die, but weaken . . . it beyond repair."
"If they don't get something, a lot of these kids today say, 'It's because I'm black,' " said attorney Rohulamin Quander. "And they haven't been through anything. They don't know what real discrimination is."
Philip King agreed. "From what I can tell, this generation of kids has an idea of discrimination that is lopsided--they expect it!"
But the children interviewed had differing views on race consciousness, discrimination and what may be expected of them in the future.
Her father views his blackness as a foundation of strength, said King's 15-year-old stepdaughter Lisa White, a sophomore at Seat Pleasant's Central High. But she added, "Being black has nothing to do with it how she feels about herself , it just has to do with being Lisa and being a normal person that God created."
Darnell Carpenter, Waynes' grandnephew, a 15-year-old sophomore at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School, has another view. Carpenter says, "Being black identifies a race of people you belong to. It's a way of carrying yourself, it's your background, it's what you are."
Carpenter says he has noticed that white teen-agers are allowed to congregate in some stores where blacks are made to feel unwelcome.
"You go places, and the way they treat you, they don't treat whites," he said. "You go to purchase something, and they have an negative attitude. You can see that all they want to do is give you what you want and send you on your way."
Carpenter's older brother, Bernard, 16, remembered the Ku Klux Klan membership drive at Washington-Lee last year, but said his father introduced him to racism when he told him the story about whip marks on Bernard's grandfather's back.
"From the moment he saw those marks, my father said he hated whites," Bernard said. Although the Carpenter brothers don't share their father's racial views, they agreed that racism would always be around.
"As long as people are different colors, different races, there are always going to be some people who have to hate others," Darnell Carpenter said. "There's nothing you can do about it but live with it."
These teens rejected suggestions that the majority of black youth was without racial commitment and a part of America's "Me Generation" motivated only by the quest for jobs and money.
"If segregation ever came back, I couldn't take that. I would have to do something like Martin Luther King did," said Lisa White. "I would have to help [other blacks]. They are a part of me!"