Stanford University Professor of Economic History Gavin Wright delivered a convocation speech Sept. 30th that focused on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Perhaps today’s leading historian on the American South, Wright uses economic tools to interpret historical developments, such as the history of slavery, the cotton economy and the California gold rush. In his talk, “The Civil Rights Revolution as Economic History: Who Gained? Who Lost?” he explored the connection between civil rights and what he argued to be the fundamental, underlying issue of economic disparity.
During the early 60’s, it was difficult for people to foresee the upcoming social changes: “many people did not anticipate the forthcoming revolution,” he said. Wright emphasized the importance of the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina Sit-Ins, which highlighted discrimination of blacks in white-owned stores and restaurants. The resulting arrests of blacks for trespassing on white-owned private property ignored, Wright argued, “the issue of white owners making the choice of refusing black customers so they wouldn’t lose white customers.”
This became a fundamental point in illustrating that the civil rights struggle was largely economic. In addition, Wright emphasized the largely overlooked positive business responses sparked by desegregation. He quoted a white man saying to a newspaper in the early 60’s: “Had I known it would result like this, I would have done it [desegregated long ago.”
Wright also spoke of an underlying assumption that racial inequalities were reflected in differences in productive capabilities of blacks and whites. Yet he mentioned how the obvious lack of truth to the myth was accepted only in 1969, “when large companies finally began preaching a doctrine of colorblind employment.
One aspect of Wright’s research focuses on the establishment of voting rights for blacks in Southern states. After 1964, voter registration for blacks spiked. However, Wright argued that “many blacks at the time thought it was useless; the thought was that they should stick with action instead of votes.” But a result of increased voter registration was the increase of elected black Southern officials.
One very telling observation was the dramatic decline of the infant mortality rate from diarrhea and pneumonia during the 60’s and 70’s. Wright showed that the Civil Rights Act allowed blacks access to healthcare, resulting in “the largest reduction of poverty; it wasn’t that health care services were improving, because the same mortality rate for whites was remaining unchanged.”
In his conclusion, Wright noted that although the increase in interracial cooperation clearly led to positive progress and developments, “not all of it is a happy story. Indeed the Civil Rights movement was not fully completed. Today income inequality, though strictly not racial, does aggravate racial relationships within society.”