The Unsteady March
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The Unsteady March

The title of my talk, "The Unsteady March," is borrowed from a book by the historian Philip Klinkner. It is a remarkable history and analysis of the civil rights movement in the United States, and the title is intended to shatter the myth that we have made seamless, smooth, and steady progress on human rights in this country, most particularly in our long and ongoing national struggles over race and ethnicity.

Instead, as Klinkner documents, our civil rights efforts have come in ragged bursts of activity, lasting five or six or seven years, always followed by much longer periods—like the one we're in now—of stagnation and regression. But what is really important is that in every one of those bursts of progress, after World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War, students and student activism have played essential and creative roles.

The march toward equality is not only unsteady, it is long. More than 100 years ago, W. E. B. DuBois published The Philadelphia Negro (1899), definitively establishing that it was the social order, and not (as popular belief then had it) the alleged biological inferiority of a race, that was responsible for the appalling health status of people of color in this country. Sixty years ago, Gunnar Myrdal's classic study An American Dilemma (1944) made this statement about African American health: "Area for area, class for class, the Negro cannot get the same [End Page 1] advantage in the way of prevention or cure of disease as can the white. Discrimination, both conscious and unconscious, contributes to Negro morbidity and mortality." In light of what we know now about the role of negative racial and ethnic stereotyping, that statement 60 years ago was astonishingly prescient.

I hope to give a brief picture of student activism through the lens of personal experience—experience, I hasten to add, that I share with thousands of others in the cohort of determined and principled young people that you have now joined. For me, the University of Chicago is very much a part of that experience. Fifty-seven years ago, I was a student at this university, a pre-med student just back from World War II, and a member of an organization called the American Veterans Committee. We had a civil rights committee that I chaired, and a faculty member came to us to report that his black domestic servant had been turned away at one of the University hospitals.

We started an investigation, and here's what we discovered. In 1947, the University's maternity hospital flatly and absolutely refused to admit black patients. Billings Hospital and the other units in the university's hospital system had elaborate systems for turning away black patients. I still have in my files the sworn affidavits from admitting clerks describing how they had been instructed, when black patients arrived for an outpatient clinic appointment, to say "Oh, that clinic isn't meeting today, there must be some mistake," or "I can't find your name on the list," and then, "You'd better go over to Provident Hospital" (the African American hospital on Chicago's South Side). The minutes of the medical school admissions committee, which at that point had admitted no students of color for many years, contained this or similar statements about more than one black applicant: "Well, he's qualified, but we're not ready to accept a black medical student just yet."

All of this was perfectly legal in 1947. It is a measure of both arrogance and impunity that faculty members did not hesitate to put such judgments in writing. Our committee documented all this, and more, and negotiated with the university at some length to demand change. We met with the great liberal chancellor, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who said he found it terrible but that there was nothing he could or would do about it. The University stonewalled and stonewalled.

Finally, we decided that we had to expose what the University was doing to the press and the people of Chicago. And so, somewhat ahead of our time, we organized a protest strike of students (and a...