My great-grandfather Cato Sutton, at 14 in 1864, was an eyewitness to the closing months of the Civil War. With little to no education, he would soon find himself faced with a dilemma. No longer a slave to a master, but now, without land and money, he was a slave to society, which was the plight of the vast majority of the four million freed men at the close of the Civil War in 1965.
By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, my great-grandfather, now married, had relocated in Sampson County, living in the Honeycutts Township. According to the 1880 census data, he was a sharecropper, laboring on the land owned by MicajahCrumpler, a 69-year-old white farmer, while enduring a continual cycle of debt and poverty.
Beginning in the 1890s, the former slave states, now controlled by the former Confederates, devised ways to minimize the political influence of blacks, conducting a reign of terror to keep them in their place. This was the racial climate in which my grandfather Jacob Sutton, at 14 in 1907, lived, being an eyewitness to the rise of white supremacy and Jim Crow throughout the south.
Largely a self-taught man, my grandfather was able to read and write. Between 1907-1935, in spite of living with segregation, oppression and violence, and while raising his own family, my grandfather Jacob worked hard, saved his money and managed to buy some 70 acres of land, land that I live on today in the Bearskin community.
In addition, my grandfather, a devoted husband and father, was not only a successful farmer, he became a businessman, owning a general store for years, sering the Bearskin community.
Beginning in 1930, my father Walter Sutton, at 14, was a teenager during the Great Depression. Growing up on his father’s farm, dad learned an appreciation for hard work while being an eyewitness to the widening racial divide and living in a separate and unequal society. He remained on the family farm well into the 1970s, eventually leaving for a public job in construction.
Now, 50 years ago this month, July 1964, I was approaching 14 and became an eyewitness to history when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, which ended discrimination in public places, employment, education and voter registration, thus making it the most important step ever taken by Congress in support of racial equality.
Yes, we have made great strides in overcoming generations of inequality and it’s abundantly clear that we’ve come a long way since the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, including the election of a two-term black president. While we may be a less “racialized”society 50 years later, we have not moved beyond race.
Now, more than ever, we need to respect and embrace our differences, and those differences should help “shape all our lives.”
Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, economic justice is still far away, requiring us to do much more in closing the employment and education gap. As a community, we have a moral obligation to commit to equality of opportunity for all, putting in place policies and practices that help the underserved and underemployed, allowing them to become self-supporting citizens.
When we help our most vulnerable citizens reach their true potential and become inspired to take ownership of their future, the whole society is much better off.