The Appalling Past (has of course not yet passed…)

The NY Times obituary of a man I had never heard of, Pedro A. Sanjuan, stopped me completely this morning, reminding me how recent the past is, and how, from today, appalling:

His first battleground was the Maryland portion of Route 40, a federal highway. The ambassadors of Chad and Sierra Leone were among eight diplomats who had been refused service along there. The Chad ambassador was on his way to present his credentials to President Kennedy. The 7-year-old son of a diplomat was refused a glass of water.

Mr. Sanjuan visited more than 90 restaurants and drive-ins along the highway, and persuaded about half to serve blacks. He testified before the Maryland legislature on behalf of civil rights legislation. He met with representatives of the Congress of Racial Equality, the civil rights group known as CORE, which staged protests to pressure the restaurants. He spoke to civic groups.

“We pour millions into foreign aid,” he said. “How senseless it is to ruin this tremendous effort by refusing to serve a cup of coffee to a customer whose skin is dark.”

… One African delegate to the United Nations, Mr. Sanjuan was told, had been barred from an airport restaurant while passing through Atlanta and consigned to a stool in a hangar, where he ate a sandwich wrapped in wax paper. The delegate later became his country’s prime minister.

…The situation festered until the Maryland legislature passed a law in 1963 opening public accommodations. The landmark federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 cemented the progress. Historians say publicity about the diplomats had accelerated these steps.

It goes without saying that even the good work he, and the Kennedy brothers did, was tinted with infamy:  their alarm was for the diplomats and their families, not the Americans who were treated even worse, daily.

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