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C. Fraser Smith: Civil rights train keeps rolling

We thought the civil rights thing — the demonstrations, the clenched fists, the boycotts — all of that was behind us. Unless we listened to those who knew.

When you get on the civil rights train, you can never get off. Not if you’re paying attention. Not if you’re fighting for so long you know the struggle will never end.

That was the late Congressman Parren Mitchell’s urging. Contemporary events, if nothing else, prove him quite right. He and his famous civil rights family, the Mitchells of Baltimore, knew the sadly unchanging landscape as well as any.

You couldn’t get off the civil rights train because it had not — might not ever — reach its destination. The struggle would not end. You had to ride on and on. You had to keep your eyes on the prize. Gains could become losses overnight.

You had to ride — even when Barack Obama was elected, even when some declared the arrival of a post-racial society in the United States (you understood the hope, but you were doubtful), even when many African Americans were suddenly finding a measure of upward mobility.

You didn’t forget the deep-rooted, partly discrimination-created poverty and stunted opportunity. You saw the war on poverty end without anything like victory or a way to sustain the effort.

With all of that, we had the phenomenon of orange as the new black. Prison became a symbol of injustice; blacks were so much more likely to be charged and incarcerated. We were off the train, so we didn’t work for a new system. The system, at the same time, got more punitive. Out of fear, to put the best face on it, we created generations of fractured families.

Or, as we cannot fail to see, blacks are more likely to be shot or choked or abused in confrontations with police.

“Hands up, can’t breathe” is chanted across the width and breadth of the land. As if we were back in the 1960s, marchers are finally demanding action: better training for police officers, a new approach to combating crime committed by police, decommissioning of military-style armaments in police departments, a new examination of sentencing practices.

We forgot Parren Mitchell’s warning (or never really thought about it). We climbed down from the barricades too quickly. We were misled by progress — dramatic as it was. Important steps were taken, but the mission was not accomplished.

The wages of slavery and discrimination and American apartheid can never be repaid. But civil rights and equal justice can be demanded over and over.

Some of us, now, are back on the train. It will be a long, endless, but important journey.

But we can get closer to the end we all must want.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is