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Social progress must not become stagnant

February 26, 2013


America’s sordid past with intolerance and social stratification has become an accepted part of our history, so much so that we commemorate with such things as holidays and month-long studies those who excelled in spite of it.

Schools across the country close for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, celebrations for Latino heritage and other cultures among our melting pot are widely accepted and advertised, and the outlook of the professional woman once viewed as domestic blasphemy has softened considerably over the last few decades.

But some of the most vibrant and vicious displays of ignorance, hate and intolerance occurred in the South … and not all that long ago. Seeing society as it is now, it’s very hard for anyone in my generation to fathom things like integration being anything less than commonplace. It’s even harder, when faced with the gripping images of how ferocious the resistance toward that change became at times, for me to believe much of it happened less than 20 years before I was born.

Most recently, I watched the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary of the integration at Ole Miss, when U.S. Marshals and National Guard troops literally battled the State of Mississippi and much of the Ole Miss student body in 1962 so James Meredith, the university’s first black student, could simply attend classes there.

Part of my interest in the documentary was personal. One of the first features I wrote for a professional newspaper (as an intern at an Arkansas weekly at age 19) focused on one of the U.S. Marshals protecting Meredith. I knew nothing about the story until that very enlightening interview with the former marshal in the summer of 2003, and even then, I didn’t have a clear picture of what actually took place.

In 1962, just seven years before Americans landed on the moon and almost 100 years since slavery’s official end in the United States, a major university became a war zone that left two dead and hundreds injured over something that today would be considered perfectly normal … a black guy going to college.

Honestly, we should commemorate such moments as these in our history, not for shame, but to show the velocity with which society can change for the better. My father graduated from Warren High School in Warren, Ark., in 1969 with only three black classmates, all of whom had been integrated only a year prior. In 2002, when I graduated from the same high school, I sat two seats down from a black valedictorian. And more importantly, I thought nothing of her race. I just thought about all the times she helped me with my homework.

Yet our society must not be complacent and satisfied with the progress we’ve made. There really still is farther to go. There are still inequalities, be they race, gender or otherwise, in society, especially in the workplace. And in many cases, those inequalities aren’t fueled by the hateful, biased agenda of the past. They simply boil down to natural tradition.

Some tradition is positive and necessary. It helps us define who we are as a culture and gives us a true sense of pride in our heritage. But it remains as paramount as ever before for people to step up and peacefully challenge traditions born from ignorance and inequality so they are not passed down to another generation. Today’s society has the knowledge and exposure to enough diversity that time is no longer an acceptable currency with which to purchase true equality. It’s like I used to tell my class when I taught Sunday school a few years back: “Right is right. Wrong is wrong. We know the difference. So act accordingly.”

Ultimately our society’s responsibility is simple. If God sets the hills we climb a little higher than other people’s, whether through disability, finances or some other adversity, we must remember the biblical teaching that the Lord never gives us more than we can handle. But the manmade hills should be set at the same height.

Zack Plair is editor of the Starkville Daily News. Contact him at

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