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Lessons from history

BACKSTORY | On civil rights, legal protections, and God’s sovereignty

Myrna Brown (left) and Mary Morris Photo by Myrna Brown

Lessons from history
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When we decided we wanted to cover the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, I knew right away I wanted Myrna Brown to write the story. Myrna grew up in Mobile, Ala., and went on to have a successful television career in Atlanta. She witnessed firsthand the ongoing struggle for racial equality in the Deep South. But when I asked her to tackle this assignment, she admitted she hadn’t thought much about the landmark legislation. So she talked to three different generations of black Americans to get their perspective on what it meant, particularly for people living in the South. You can read her story, “Equality for all,” in this issue. After she turned it in, I asked her what she’d learned.

Did anything surprise you? That it took so long for desegregation to trickle down from the federal to the state level, as demonstrated by Ricardo Woods and his recollection of going to a segregated school until middle school. I was also surprised by the notion that the Civil Rights Act hurt black businesses and black educators. But on a funny note, I also wasn’t expecting to meet such a vibrant 88-year-old still giving “wash and sets” in her own beauty shop and enjoying it!

Did your reporting change your perspective on the Civil Rights Act? Yes, it did. The legislation was passed one year before I was born, so I have no recollection of it. While it was probably part of my primary and secondary education, it didn’t leave the same indelible mark as, say, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. And it’s never been celebrated like the King holiday. In fact, when I asked how they would mark July 2, the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the ladies in the beauty shop and George Williams said they would regard it as just another day.

Now, maybe I should have reserved this for your earlier question about what surprised me, but I wasn’t expecting my research and reporting to challenge my longtime perspective on the Civil Rights Act and its significance in history. Here’s what I mean by that: There’s a part of my conversation with Ricardo Woods that particularly struck me and I haven’t been able to forget it. He simply said, “There are so many people who don’t normally think about which laws give them the rights that they have.” I was one of those people.

If you had been interviewing yourself, what would you have said about the effect of the Civil Rights Act? I would have echoed Mary Morris’ sentiment. We live in a society where laws are needed to foster civility. But laws alone don’t change hearts. Only God can do that.

What do you wish today’s young people understood about our country’s past and its future? Simply, the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 1:9. There’s nothing new under the sun. History repeats itself but God is sovereign, and I would add: The purpose of the Lord will stand.

Leigh Jones

Leigh is features editor for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate who spent six years as a newspaper reporter in Texas before joining WORLD News Group. Leigh also co-wrote Infinite Monster: Courage, Hope, and Resurrection in the Face of One of America's Largest Hurricanes. She resides with her husband and daughter in Houston, Texas.


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