It was not, as it turned out, the end of the racial caste system in the south, or even in reality the end of slavery. Through a campaign of terrorism, the white ruling caste in the south re-established supremacy in the decade following the war; deprived the freed slaves of the vote; and re-established what amounted to slavery in the form of sharecropping and prison labor.
The seminal event in the Civil Rights movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, happened while I was an infant. I was just coming into consciousness of the world as the movement grew into widespread grassroots rebellion against Jim Crow. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, I was in high school, and able to appreciate the significance of these events.
I grew up in New England, in a middle class and liberal cultural milieu. I attended a progressive college and worked for some years in movement jobs and then for United Way and minority community based organizations, went to graduate school at Brandeis. I truly believed that the legacy of slavery and white supremacy was fading, because I saw little of it in my world. And truth be told, it was suppressed in public discourse. Yes, the Republican party depended on white tribalism and racism to maintain the loyalty of its voters, but the message was sotto voce.
No more. Once Barack Obama committed the unforgivable offense of presidenting while black, the profound current of racism in American society resurfaced. Mark Phillips, writing for Salon, had a different experience. In the town where he grew up, racism was completely normative. He writes,
Some claim that Faulkner was mistaken and the past really is past, racism in contemporary America little more than a rusty whip handle unearthed at the site of a Mississippi plantation. I’ve heard that the election of our first African American president was irrefutable evidence that racism in the United States has been reduced to a group of feeble old men peering watery-eyed through holes in soiled and tattered white sheets. I’ve heard from white people that fear of racism is as irrational as fear of ghosts. It is hoped they learned otherwise when white supremacists, young and old, men and women, many openly armed, marched and rioted in Charlottesville in August 2017. I hope so, but I doubt it.I've learned.