Lewis Diuguid

‘We wanted the same thing white America wanted’

Anita L. Russell, president of the Kansas City branch of the NAACP
Anita L. Russell, president of the Kansas City branch of the NAACP

The 1950s and 1960s picketing and marches that civil rights soldiers led opened lunch counters, stores and jobs for Anita L. Russell’s generation.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme Court ruling ending legal segregation, made it possible for Russell to be among the first blacks at Longfellow Elementary School. NAACP pickets at Southwestern Bell also enabled the 1964 Lincoln High School graduate to work for the phone company as a telephone operator.

Blacks previously could only hope to get jobs as janitors in many workplaces, said Russell, who retired in 2001 as a manager in the SBC network operations center, earning her bachelor’s at Ottawa University and master’s at Webster University in business.

“We were asking not to be excluded because of the color of our skin,” said Russell, who has been the president of the Kansas City NAACP branch since 2001. “We wanted the same thing that white America wanted. We are the conscience of America.”

Russell was part of a continuum from slavery of older African-Americans’ struggles against racism and discrimination resulting in younger blacks’ gains.

“We lived through the civil rights era,” Russell said of her generation. “We knew to prepare ourselves. It was like you were carrying the whole race upon your shoulders. Younger people are not at that place and time, and they’re not paying attention.”

Somehow the urgency to continue the struggle didn’t get passed on to young African-Americans from the generation benefiting from civil rights work of others. Some felt they had made it, and there was no need.

Yet racism today is more cloaked and subtle, which makes it more difficult to identify and fight for advances to continue and for young people to understand their role.

But those who continue to oppose black advances have redoubled their efforts to reverse African-Americans’ gains. That worries Russell. She sees the opposition’s successes in voter suppression, which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fought, coming back to life through voter identification laws and early balloting restrictions.

Russell sees it in a re-segregation of schools combined with a crushing urban poverty and black children receiving a grossly inferior education. She also sees it in schools and popular culture bamboozling black youths into embracing stereotypes, neglecting black history and failing to be part of the movement to continue civil rights gain in the next 50 years. “We still need the NAACP,” she said.

This year the branch will celebrate its centennial in the struggle for social, educational, political and economic equality for all. At its half-century mark, Russell said, no one ever dreamed Kansas City would have black bus drivers, elect two black mayors, have a black police chief, fire chief, county and state lawmakers, congressmen and senators, black CEOs and even a president.

Black youths must prepare to be the next governors, judges, corporate CEOs, national, state and local lawmakers, business owners and board members. But they’re getting shortchanged in schools.

“We have to be vigilant and act so we can counter these things going on,” said Russell, who joins others for this column series looking at 50 years of civil rights advances while sharing a vision for the next half-century.

Russell said what’s clear is education for black children must improve, and incarceration rates must go down. African-Americans need better housing and schools, safer communities and improved health care.

Black youths must realize that, just as in King’s era, they must excel in education. Russell said African-Americans’ history has to be preserved so that young people will feel the same responsibility to continue to advance.

For advances in the next 50 years to be possible, organizations like the NAACP will have to do more to get young people’s attention and keep it.