50 years ago today in Philly, this happened

The 2010s are the 50th anniversary of the 1960s, indisputably the most tumultuous American decade since World War II -- so you've been seeing a lot of "anniversary journalism" these days. Generally speaking, there's probably too many anniversary-type stories out there -- every day's some anniversary of some interesting thing, for God's sake  -- but if I had to pick one yardstick worth using, I'd definitely go with the 50th.

It's a great measure of time. Often it's a final chance for former young-adult participants and eyewitnesses -- now in their 70s or 80s -- to tell their story, while those (like me) who were kids can marvel at how the world has changed since their childhood. For the millions not even born in 1964, it's interesting to learn about a time that is so recent that was in some ways and so different -- yet in some ways not much different at all.

Today on New Year's 2014, we celebrate the Mummers Parade, and a rightfully so. It's a slice of only-in-Philadelphia  that continues to bring together neighbors and ex-neighbors and multiple generations of families, for a months-long exercise in community building of a kind you rarely see in our atomized age of iPhone solitude. And so it explodes every year on Broad Street in a burst of color that entertains young children and visitors to our fair city.

But it was a different story on this week, exactly 50 years ago. Here's what folks who read the New York Times saw on January 1, 1964 (PDF file):

PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 31 -- Judge Theodore L. Reimel refused today to ban blackfaced clowns from the traditional New Year's Day parade here.

Local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had sought an injunction in Common Pleas Court. They contended that "the city should not take part in a parade where Negroes are depicted in an unfavorable light."

At issue was some $66,500 that the city awarded in prize money for the Mummers. The civil rights attorney Charles Bowser, who would later in the 1970s run for mayor, told the judge that "[w]e are not intending to stop the parade, but we don't want, as taxpayers, to pay for our own ridicule." But Judge Reimel balked, believing that a last-minute injunction would cancel the entire parade, which he called "a fine tradition in Philadelphia."

Then a higher power -- Mother Nature -- intervened. Bad weather delayed the parade for several days, and on Jan. 3, 1964, a three-judge panel barred parading in blackface (PDF link) but also issued an injunction against protesters. Civil rights activists had vowed to throw their bodies in front of the Mummers, if necessary, to stop them. Instead, the parade went off the next day (PDF link) -- without blackface and without major incident -- and later in 1964 the end of blackface was affirmed by the city.

Still, some mourned the end of minstrel mimicking of blacks, which they believed would also be the end of Mummery as they had known it for decades. The director of the parade, a police court magistrate named Elias Myers who had been a mummer since 1906 (!), resigned in protest. "It's a shame when a group that has been going up and up the ladder can stop another from having a good time once a year," he said 50 years ago this week. "I can see that next year you won't be able to play banjos."

Like the other epic events of the 1960s, it's a moment worth remembering five decades later. On one hand, we should celebrate how far we've come in a relatively short period of time -- not just the end of legal segregation and other gains for blacks and other minorities from your workplace to the White House. But we should also cheer the more basic fact that most people, including most of those who marched up Broad Street, would agree with what in 1964 was still a radical view...that blackface is silly, demeaning, and completely unnecessary to having a good parade and a good time on New Year's Day.

But on the other hand...maybe we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back with that other hand. Recalling the racism that was endemic 50 years ago can -- and should -- remind us that there's way too much racism around today. We see it at the top -- racially motivated policies like the voter ID laws, the discriminatory use of stop-and-frisk policies, or the high incarceration rate of blacks -- and we see it in the underbelly, in places like, ahem, newspaper online comment sections. It was just last week that "Duck Dynasty"'s Phil Robertson opined that blacks were singing and happy before civil rights -- isn't that essentially that same idea that was behind blackface?

One more reason to remember the events of January 1964. While we all agree today that the black activists were pursuing a just and moral cause, they were getting no help from Philadelphia's political leaders or even the judicial system until they threatened civil disobedience. It's important to remember that, because millions of struggling middle-class Americans are facing the exact same indifference from those at the top of society in 2014, and may face the same tough decisions.

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