My Cub Scout den was on a tour of the local television station, WSAZ, in Huntington, WV. There was a row of 4 teletype machines in the front window where news came in. As we were standing in front of them, a message was being typed out. It said that the Supreme Court of the United States had decided the case of Brown v. Board of Education and that schools segregated by race were no longer legal in this country. Our den mother, who was also my actual mother, had all of us read the message and told us that we were experiencing a turning point in history. I don’t think at that age I understood much of the effect that this would have, but I was clearly told it was important and I have never forgotten that day.
Sixty years have passed. The second and inferior school system in Huntington was dismantled. Substantial progress was made for people disfavored by race or by poverty during the first half of that period. I didn’t contribute nearly as much to the process as I now wish I did. I assumed that it was the nature of the world for things to get better. I have always had what I call “a Pollyanna streak.” I barely noticed that the improvements came because a lot of people worked very hard and took great risks for them.
Now we’ve had the second half of that sixty years. And progress in the last three decades has has slowed to a crawl or maybe even reversed. Racism is all around us, even if the worst racists have learned to watch what they say; and a growing number of people lack hope in their economic future. Nevertheless, I still assume that my grandchildren are at the beginning of a new period with decades of the world becoming a better place for everyone. This isn’t yet visible, but real turnarounds in history often aren’t until they’re well underway.