50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act brings memories to residents

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 | 10:03 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — At Frederick Douglass High School in 1957, John Kelly shared three deteriorating microscopes with more than 30 other students. One year later, after the integration of Columbia Public Schools allowed him to transfer to Hickman High School, he was overwhelmed to see a complete science set for every student.

Columbia has seen many changes in the 50 years since passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on sex, race, religion, age or color. Still, some residents are eager to see further changes.

“There have been some slow changes, but you still see African Americans playing a second role,”said Mary Ratliff, NAACP Missouri president.

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Columbia’s public schools were integrated without violent incidents or police interference, Ratliff said. This was not the case across the country.

Rodney Kelly, who was in sixth grade when the integration program began in Columbia in 1958, believes that athletics helped the integration process, especially for boys.

“Some black kids told me I was trying to be white and some white kids ignored me,” Kelly said. “But if you could play ball, you could play ball.”

The school integration process was slow, Kelly said. He graduated in 1968 from Hickman, and was awarded the first Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship. But of his graduating class of about 400, he says there were only about 40 African-American students.

William E. "Gene" Robertson,  MU’s community development professor emeritus, said the university’s hiring practices at that time reflected a problem of the entire culture.  Robertson was the second African American to be hired as teaching faculty by MU.

“No blacks were being promoted from within,” Robertson said. “If (the university) needed a resource, they went out of the system.”

The town was slower to integrate than the schools, said John Kelly, assistant principal at Hickman for more than 30 years. Shortly after the Civil Rights Act passed, Kelly went to an ice cream stand with a friend. He soon noticed something different about his treat. The other customers were eating out of a glass bowl, while Kelly’s was plastic.

Although much has changed since 1964, John Kelly says he is “not optimistic" about racism today.

“When I grew up people said what they believed, so you knew who the racists were,” Kelly said. “Now we deal with much more subtle racism, and people need to wake up and start voting.”

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