Huge changes, with more needed

Published 5:34 pm Tuesday, October 16, 2018

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I was thinking about a column about the changes in popular music during the past half century or so, and it occurred to me that the music dovetailed with various societal changes that are far more important then the music that accompanied them. So, first, the cultural shifts, and in the next week or so, the music that accompanied them.

Many changes during these years upended taboos, attempted to right longstanding civil wrongs and collectively pointed toward a society that was trying, often haltingly, to live up to its own Declaration of Independence.

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The Civil War ended slavery, but not racial injustice. Instead, the war’s end ushered in a new and in some ways, at least as harsh, treatment of black Americans. Jim Crow lasted the better part of a century and was only dismantled through the courageous efforts of blacks determined to see its end and courageous whites willing to stand by their fellow citizens to see that it happened.

It can and should be said that great strides have been made in civil rights, thanks to Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, however, racism, if not on the rise, is at least far more visible and vocal than it was just a few years ago.

The struggle by women to gain an equal footing in society began long before our time. Their first major battlefront was for the right to vote, but they have also struggled for equal property and other rights crucial to their independence.

The movement for women’s rights is viewed as having occurred in waves. Woman suffrage was first. At the end of that long and bitter struggle, the 19th Amendment was ratified. My generation saw what has come to be known as the second wave of that effort, called the feminist movement in the 1960s and the equal rights movement ever since.

There was great hope back then that women would gain full control of their reproductive systems, that they would begin earning equal pay for equal work and that they would finally be treated with dignity and no longer subjected to the sexual harassment that had always been their lot for centuries. Today, clearly much remains to be done.

Other cultural movements have been marked by progress as well. The nation today is far more empathetic to the needs of the mentally ill than was the case in 1950, and yet the movement to provide the mentally ill with their rights as citizens has also left many of them without a social net. That has contributed to the nation’s homeless population and the incarceration of the mentally ill in our jails and prisons.

Like women’s rights, the expansion of children’s rights began well before our time, most notably with the introduction of child labor laws. In the second half of the 20th century, at the end of World War II, orphanages began closing, replaced by foster care. While there are horror stories associated with foster care, it has provided a safer and more natural home environment for millions of children than orphanages did.

The rights of children have continued to be redefined, largely through educational offerings to those with special needs.

In all these areas, we have a long way to go in this country, but looking back over the past six or seven decades, we have also come a long way.