Changing attitudes

Beginning with Pope Benedict XVI, people around the world have noted that the majority of Americans made history Nov. 4 when they elected as president a person of African descent.

Not a few historians have observed that just two generations ago, blacks, regardless of the Constitution, essentially could not even vote in many states, let alone be elected to office.

The road from there has been long. It has passed many landmarks. It has involved the courts and the political process, but most of all it has occurred because Americans have changed attitudes or recognized racism in their midst, and they have rejected its fundamental evil.

No one event began the movement against institutionalized racism, but two events were important. One was the Great Depression. The other was the Second World War.

Before the Depression, the overwhelming majority of blacks lived in the 11 former states of the old Confederacy, an area brutally hit by economic bad times.

Thousands upon thousands of blacks moved to the Midwest, North and the Pacific Coast simply to find jobs. They not only found jobs, but, in societies unburdened by legalized segregation, they were able to attend good schools and live lives unencumbered by restrictions. Meanwhile, their children moved into the mainstream of American life. Of course, there were many exceptions.

World War II brought blacks into the war effort, along with everyone else. They fought in the military, heroically as often as anyone else.

President Harry S. Truman recognized that segregation had no place in the military, so despite bitter outcries from many fellow Democrats, he ended the process of racial separation in the armed services.

This is where the United States was in the summer of 1952 when Republicans met in Chicago to choose their candidates for national office. Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio were about equally divided in the number of delegates. Each needed just one break to seize the lead.

Eisenhower saw a possible chance for himself in popular California Gov. Earl Warren's control over that state's large delegation. The general offered Warren a deal. Turn California to Eisenhower, and California will get the vice presidential nomination. Additionally, Eisenhower promised Warren a seat on the Supreme Court as soon as a vacancy occurred after Eisenhower's inauguration.

Warren endorsed Eisenhower. California followed. True to his word, Eisenhower chose California U.S. Sen. Richard M. Nixon to be his vice president. Eisenhower won the election. Soon, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died. Eisenhower nominated Warren to replace Vinson.

On the court, Warren immediately faced a major case, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which challenged segregation in Kansas public schools.

To rule in favor of the challenge, the court would have to reverse Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that actually permitted discrimination against blacks.

Reversing Plessy was a tall order. Working as a politician, depending more upon sociology than legal precedent, Warren brought the court together. It approved Brown and reversed Plessy. It was a major step forward in civil rights.

Popular opinion prompted Warren. As the pro-life movement continues, and debates include new life issues, all of us devoted to human life might realize how vital to the cause is public opinion.

American popular opinion is not now where we want it to be. Face it. As much as anything, public opinion regarding life issues is not as much hostile to the dignity of life as it is uninformed or indifferent.

We need to convince people of the dignity of life. Pure and simple. When American opinion genuinely treasures life, the politicians and the judges will follow. Then, when and if Roe v. Wade is overturned, respect for life will prevail.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV associate publisher.