WASHINGTON (AP) - Take a glance at the anniversary calendar this year and it's clear that in America, racial progress comes in fits and starts.
The Emancipation Proclamation declared the freedom of slaves 150 years ago. Within a decade, a trio of amendments to the Constitution made them citizens. Over the next century, the Supreme Court and Jim Crow segregation in the South snatched those rights away, and murdered Medgar Evers for trying to get them back, and just as Martin Luther King Jr.'s populist protests yielded laws restoring freedoms, King, too, was killed
Less than a year ago, the nation re-elected its first black president - a step widely considered the culmination of all this labor.
Yet in this week alone, a series of events illustrated just how fragile that progress really is, such as the Supreme Court chipping away at the King-inspired voting rights, job discrimination, and affirmative action laws. Which they punted to Congress to fix - a historically divided Congress that has accomplished little since President Barack Obama first took office, including GOP conservatives, dragging their feet on whether to vote on granting citizenship on illegal immigration for those living in the U.S.
This and other events percolating in American culture - George Zimmerman's trial in Florida for shooting to death black teenager Trayvon Martin, and celebrity chef Paula Deen's career meltdown because of her past use of the N-word - amounted to a gut punch for many, prompting questions about what exactly is going on.
"It's so troubling for me, after helping to bridge many, many years of social change, and not see an end to this, I find it really nauseating," said Suzy Post, 80, of Louisville, Ky., a white woman who has worked for civil rights causes since the 1950s and is now a member of the state's Human Relations Commission.
Her sentiments echoed Tuesday by a visibly shaken collection of black and Hispanic members of Congress who bemoaned the fresh blows to the laws that helped put many of them in office.
"The issue of race, slavery, it's our original sin as a nation," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who as a student activist was severely, and repeatedly, beaten in the voting rights struggle of the 1960s. "It's going to take years and maybe a generation before we end it. It's a long, ongoing struggle. It's the struggle of more than a lifetime."
In a former era, the strides toward equality were once met by fire hoses or head-cracking blows from billy-clubs wielded by police, but today, elicit racist commentary on Twitter, such as the hateful barrage over the national anthem being sung by Sebastien De La Cruz, a young Mexican-American, during the National Basketball Association finals. Or in another instance, they generate oddly placed outrage, such as criticisms of a Cheerios commercial that depicted a white mother, a black father, and their biracial child.
"What I believe is happening is that while the country's demographic and age is changing rapidly, we as a nation have hit racial fatigue," said Maria Teresa Kumar, co-founder of Voto Latino. "We no longer want to discuss racism, and we like to believe that we're above it. We are not."
Briana Bacon, 20, of Philadelphia, put it more bluntly. "I think they're shutting down opportunities for minorities, and I think minorities are in an (expletive) place to begin with," said Bacon, who is black and recently enlisted in the National Guard.
Civil rights leaders, unwilling to say that things today are as bad as they were in King's heyday, acknowledge some uncanny parallels at play. Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said that in the first four months of this year, more than half the states introduced restrictive voting bills.
"I don't question whether Dr. King's dream remains viable. What one questions is whether the nation has the commitment to freedom, justice, and the equality of opportunity for all on a broad basis. What we currently see in this country is tension," Morial said.
Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, recalled that King's widow, the late Coretta Scott King, once observed that we never fully win freedom; every generation must win it anew.
"The times we are living in remind us that Mrs. King was right," Jealous said.
The backlash against black America is not a new one in the United States. After the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which banned slavery, extended blacks equal protection as citizens and granted them the right to vote, respectively, blacks experienced fairly rapid gains in political and economic power. Southern states responded by passing laws that allowed them to circumvent the 15th Amendment.
Enter the Supreme Court in 1896, with its Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling, which declared segregation legal if accommodations for blacks are "separate but equal" to those of whites. It was 58-years before the high court changed its mind with Brown vs. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
Although the Supreme Court didn't ban the use of race in university admissions on Monday, it returned the case to a lower court and set a higher standard for the University of Texas to meet before using race in deciding who may enroll. In other work related cases that same day, the court ruled in two other decisions to make it harder for employees to sue businesses for retaliation and discrimination.
A day later the high court stopped enforcement of a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one that kept states and local governments from implementing racially discriminatory election, voting laws, and rules.
Between those rulings, civil rights activists stood together across town and announced plans to use the 50th anniversary of the August 1963 March on Washington to renew the push for racial equality.
The times, they said, require it.
"We have a black president and a black attorney general, but that is not achieving Dr. King's dream," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist. "That may be a means to achieving it. Achievement is when we have one nation with equal protection under the law and equal opportunity."
In some parts of the country, 1960s-style civil disobedience is already underway.
"Moral Monday" protests at the North Carolina's General Assembly resulted in nearly 600 arrests since late April. The protests began over healthcare access, but grew to include demonstrations over unemployment benefit reductions, and proposals to toughen voter identification requirements and other rules for voting.
"It seems as though every time we start making strides, the forces seeking to dismantle any equality or justice efforts, rise up and they do all they can to undermine any progress made," said the Rev. Anthony T. Spearman, 62, a small-town pastor and vice president of the NAACP's North Carolina state conference.
Gail Christopher, leader of a five-year racial healing project sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, attributed the cyclical setbacks to the view that the country has yet to deal with its fundamental belief in a racial hierarchy. "We are being called on as a country to do serious work on these issues."
As the court's rulings came down, Kellogg announced $3.8 million in grants to community groups in Mississippi that work to improve life outcomes for young men of color. Those monies come on the heels of the state's commemoration of Evers, the state's first NAACP field secretary, shot to death in front of his family home on June 12, 1963.
In an interview before that grim anniversary, Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, told The Associated Press how she thought her husband would perceive the times he did not live to see.
"I believe he would look at the landscape of this country and realize what so many of us have said: We have made progress but there's still so much to be done, and if we don't guard the progress we've made, that too will slip away," she said.
One thing Evers did envision, his widow said, was the election of a black president, and President Obama, said Tuesday he was "deeply disappointed" by the Supreme Court's voting rights decision, but it would not stop his efforts to end racial discrimination.
A day later, he boarded Air Force One and took off for Africa.
Associated Press writers Brett Barouquere in Louisville, Ky., Keith Collins in Philadelphia, Henry C. Jackson in Washington, Christopher Kardish in Raleigh, N.C, and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.