Ken Plum: Much remains to be done on race relations

kenplum2I grew up in my early years in a racially segregated Virginia. The State Constitution had a provision stating, “Mixed schools prohibited. White and colored children shall not be taught in the same school.”

I did not know any African American children when I was young in rural Virginia because the several children I might have gotten to know were bused past the school I attended to a separate school a dozen miles away. It took forty law suits after Brown vs. Board of Education to overcome massive resistance and to desegregate public schools in Virginia. By that time I had left my hometown in the Shenandoah Valley and had enrolled in the Norfolk College of William and Mary later to become Old Dominion University. The City of Norfolk had a racially mixed but segregated population and had been one of the most challenging places to accomplish racial integration. I lived in an apartment on 48th Street that was the dividing line between black and white housing.

The college I attended was predominantly white; the black students in the city attended Norfolk State College. The workplaces in Norfolk were segregated. As a white college student I could get easy part-time jobs. The black people did the really strenuous work. These early experiences strengthened my resolve to work for racial and economic justice because I saw from first-hand observation that it was the moral and right thing to do. From my political science classes I came to understand that it was also the constitutional and legal thing to do.

When I came to Fairfax County in the mid-1960s I joined the Fairfax County Human Relations Council to work for racial harmony and against discrimination. The efforts of the Council led to the establishment of the Fairfax County Human Rights Commission that took over our work in an official way to deal with discrimination. I felt that progress was really being made in the community as Reston was advertising its housing as being open to all persons. I remember when my youngest son introduced me to his new best friend in elementary school after telling me about him for several weeks. Never once did he indicate that his friend was black; it clearly wasn’t something he thought was important to mention. In previous times a person’s minority status was too often among one of the first things that was said about someone.

Old Dominion University has gone on to become one of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools in the Commonwealth. One of my grandsons started at ODU but completed his studies at traditionally black Norfolk State University with never a mention of that fact about the college. I believe some of the issues that were of concern to others in the past are appropriately not even a thought for younger generations.

As we have seen through the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman matter, however, we still have a long way to go on race relations. The task of reaching racial equality and harmony is far from complete. I agree with President Obama when he said, “I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race.”

It may seem discouraging, but from my long-range perspective we are making progress. Knowing about the past is important as we go forward, but there is still much to be done. We must stay the course.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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