Shelley Wynter: The passage of the Civil Rights Act allowed me to be who I am

"The passing of the Act in 1964 could not have anticipated this psychological weight being placed on so many."

Shelley Wynter
Shelley Wynter

Photograph by Stephanie Eley

This essay is part of a series—we asked 17 Atlantans to tell us how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted their lives in honor of its 60th anniversary. Read all of the essays here.

In the early ’70s, my mom saw that private schools in New York City were giving Black students the opportunity to attend their prestigious institutions on scholarship. The Civil Rights Act made this possible, but the schools that carried out the goal of the Act were the true heroes. My mom applied for me to go to St. Bernard’s School (all boys) in Manhattan. I was accepted and began in the fifth grade.

I will never forget my mom’s words of advice as I was leaving for my first day of school. She said, “This school is giving you an opportunity due to a law that was passed years ago. You will have to outwork and outstudy your classmates. They have every advantage at their disposal, so it’s up to you to be the best.”

Throughout my time at St. Bernard’s, I was the “other,” the Black scholarship kid from Harlem in a sea of rich White boys in New York City. This created a major stress in my early days as a student. I was told I was “acting and talking White” when I was around my friends in Harlem, yet I was still the “other” with my friends in school. It was a complicated position for a young teenager navigating the world.

I imagine many millions of men and women in corporate America feel this same push and pull. Being called out for “making it” while trying to remain true to themselves. The passing of the Act in 1964 could not have anticipated this psychological weight being placed on so many. In effect, Blacks and Whites were made to see each other and, more importantly, themselves differently due to a law. This led to many complications in society, and mine was just one. This experience, however, enabled me as an adult to navigate a difficult world where Black and White are not just mere colors but also mindsets, political affiliations, and cultures.

The passage of the Act allowed me to be who I am. I rest easy in the fact that I am who I am because civil rights activists and well-intentioned politicians saw fit to fight for, march for, and vote for a law that legally forced us to love each other as humans.

Shelley Wynter is a talk show host at WSB Radio.

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.