Civil Rights: 50 Years and a Pioneer
July 2, 2014 | by Susan Hutton
Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Alumnus and civil-rights activist Rev. Dr. Charles Adams (above) talks about what the bill meant then and what it means today.
Rev. Dr. Charles Adams (’58), pastor at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, has been a civil-rights activist since his undergraduate days at U-M, where he was the only black member of the men’s glee club. “I know it sounds cocky to say so,” he says, laughing, “but I had a terrific tenor voice, a very high tenor C.” His voice landed him a solo, and he traveled with the group to perform at Ohio State. “They drove everyone around and dropped them off at their gorgeous digs,” Adams remembers, “and then drove me, alone, to shabby digs.” When they returned to campus, Adams told his advisor, “I think I was racially segregated at Ohio State.
“The glee club had arranged for me to be kept elsewhere,” Adams recalls, “to save me from rejection. ‘But I am part of the singing,’ I explained. ‘I’m not representing myself or my race. I’m a member of the group, and I have value in that regard.’” By way of reply, the club described the posh housing they’d found for him on their upcoming trip to California: “The family was black, they were attorneys, they would make me feel at home. ‘But I am here to sing with my group,’ I insisted.” Exasperated and angry, he resigned.
A Clear and Definite Change
But that painful episode was not representative of all of Adams’s experiences on campus. “I met with a group of white students at the Michigan Union every week to plot about how we could improve race relations on campus,” Adams says. “Part of the joy of being with that group was I got the chance to meet whites who didn’t like segregation any more than I did.
“They came with me to my church to hear Paul Robeson,” Adams recalls. “I had carloads of Michigan students coming to my church to hear him speak and sing. That was a joyful experience.”
Adams’s experience reflected a moment that was happening across the country. Fueled by the passion and protests of young people, segregation and legally sanctioned discrimination were painfully but steadily coming to an end.
The Civil Rights Act, says Adams, meant the federal government strongly sided with black people against the ugliness and injustice of institutional discrimination. It outlawed racial segregation and discrimination in public places, such as hotels, swimming pools, and theaters, and it made employment discrimination illegal.
“The people who supported the Civil Rights Act weren’t all Democrats or all Republicans,” he says. “It passed with a clear majority. We finally had an enforceable equal opportunity to get an education, earn a livelihood, and get consideration for advancement.”
But though the law passed, its effects were slower. “In the early days,” Adams recalls, “when I’d be on a committee, the only black, other people might say, ‘You have your perspective, but we have more votes.’ It was just that blatant, just that harsh. But the change had come—sometimes turgid, sometimes embattled. But after the Civil Rights Act passed there was a clear and definite change.”
The Beauty of Life and Freedom
For many of those born after the 1960s, the civil-rights movement lives in images of protests and demonstrations, and in inspirational speeches. To these generations, the law’s effects feel normal. While we haven’t achieved racial equality, we do have a different baseline. And we measure our progress with a different yardstick.
But for civil-rights activists like Adams, the Civil Rights Act was a moment of demarcation—a before and after in which the narrative of their lives fundamentally changed. And the gains don’t always feel scored upon permanently settled ground. “We could return to things now considered impossible. Laws can be changed or destroyed, and old patterns can recur and reappear.
“Look at the Voting Rights Act,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court’s decision last year to invalidate key parts of the 1965 legislation. “You don’t only need to know what happened, but how it came to be—and what it can be if we’re not careful and active. It is an easy trip back.”
Adams has spent his life remaining vigilant against such a return. A young pastor working in Boston in 1969, Adams was called to return to his native Detroit and Hartford Memorial Baptist Church—the church where he had been baptized, raised, and married—to minister to an African American congregation in a city that still smoldered from the Detroit riots two years before. He served as president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, and he worked to elect Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1974. In the 1980s, he successfully challenged a Dearborn, Mich., law that barred nonresidents from the city’s public parks. And he was part of a group of ministers that traveled to Los Angeles to quell the riots following the verdict of the Rodney King case.
On balance, most of the change he’s seen since the Civil Rights Act is positive. “When I was a child,” he recalls, “we lived in hostile, segregated neighborhoods. On the next street, we were not allowed to play. If our pets got lost on such a street, we were not allowed to pursue them. You could kiss the pet good-bye. That’s how harsh it was. And it took fewer than 20 years for those neighborhoods to open up, for blacks to live in those houses, for their children to go to those schools.”
And he sees that change as a promise of equality to come. “So much changed after the Civil Rights Act: women’s rights, disability rights. Look how quickly the gay-rights movement turned around. And who would have dreamt that in January of 2009 we would get a black president? You can’t even thank God for answering that prayer, because you never prayed for that. If that can happen, a whole lot of other things can happen.
“There is injustice,” he concedes, “and there is such hatred in public life, but I would like to think we see ourselves at our worst and we reject the picture. I don’t think we look at ugliness and embrace that. I think humanity, given a chance, will choose the beauty of life and freedom.”
Cover photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images. Top photo courtesy of Princeton University, Office of Communications. Inline photo courtesy of Bentley Historical Library.