When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, 40 years ago Friday, Rene Warfield was a 12-year-old living in a mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn. She had three thoughts about the Deep South: cotton picking, slavery, and cruelty to black people - until she moved here.
"Black people live here much better than they do in the North. You still find prejudice down here, but not as much as in the North," she says. She followed an aunt to South Carolina in 1989, moved back to New York for five years in 1998, then "hightailed it back to the South." She likes the quiet neighborhoods, better schools, and, most of all, feeling she is at home.
Once home to some of the South's harshest race-baiters, South Carolina now reflects how profoundly this region has changed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred segregation in public facilities and outlawed discrimination in hiring. Until then, there had been only faltering starts on creating a more just society. While push for racial equality is unfinished, here and in other regions, the tide of blacks such as Ms. Warfield returning to the South signals progress. So do other indicators, from education and economics to political participation. Southern states account for 18 out of 39 black members of Congress today, for example, up from 0 out of 5 in 1964, for example. Moreover, the agenda of racial progress is still often close to the surface in the South, while largely forgotten in the North.
"It may be hard for people in other parts of he country to believe this, but if they look South they may see some beacons of hope in this nation," says Dick Molpus, a three-time Mississippi secretary of state. "The Civil Rights Act totally transformed our state."