Since their inception nine decades ago, black history observances in February have served as opportunities to celebrate African-Americans’ rich contributions to government, politics, science, society, culture and other threads in the fabric of life in the U.S.
As Black History Month 2018 begins, the observance also provides myriad opportunities to reflect upon those contributions as well as to listen anew to the powerful words and heed the responsible calls of civil-rights trailblazers. Taken together they can guide us toward a stronger and more-harmonious nation.
The roots of Black History Month date to 1925, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson and his Association for the Study of African-American Life and History first declared Negro History Week, timed to encompass the February birthdays of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and venerated U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Over the decades, the observance expanded to one full month and spread to all corners of our country.
That proud tradition plays out this month throughout the nation. President Donald J. Trump this week proclaimed February 2018 as National African American History Month. In addition to highlighting this year’s theme of “African Americans in Times of War,” the president called on community and education leaders in America to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities.
The Mahoning Valley has answered Trump’s call with special lectures, performances and forums at Youngstown State University, branches of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, black churches and other venues.
Today, the month rightfully continues to draw attention to the unique black experience in America. Sadly, some of that experience remains mired in struggle, bias and tension.
The struggle endures in poverty rates that are three times as high for blacks than whites. It endures in low graduation rates and lackluster educational achievement in too many black communities. It endures in disturbingly high rates of black infant mortality in our region and nation.
And it endures most viciously in lingering attitudes among relatively small pockets of society that black lives still do not matter as much as white lives do.
Nationwide, the racial schism is widening. A poll the respected Pew Research Center released last August revealed that a clear majority of Americans – 58 percent – now say racism is a “big problem” in the U.S. That’s up dramatically from the 26 percent in 2011. Sadly, the numbers are validated by a resurgence of neo-Nazi, white supremacist and other hate groups.
ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT NEEDED
Clearly, more profound attitude adjustment is necessary. That process can start by better understanding the contributions of African-Americans that have benefited all Americans. It can be enriched by listening again to the powerful and resonant voices of civil-rights and cultural heroes of bygone years. Those voices carry universal messages to help narrow the racial divide today.
Listen, for example, to the instructive words of Rosa Parks, the Mongomery, Ala., seamstress who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a city bus, and in so doing took a bold and lasting stand to challenge the segregationist legacy of the American South.
“Each person must live their life as a model for others,” she once pleaded. Parks lived that philosophy in exemplary fashion, and Americans of all races and backgrounds could accomplish much progress by heeding her sage advice today.
Listen, too, to the stirring oratory of American labor-rights leader Asa Philip Randolph (1889-1979): “Justice is never given; it is exacted, and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship.”
Finally, listen to the impassioned pleas of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the icon of America’s civil-rights movement, on the necessity for the masses to peacefully engage in constructive actions to warm race relations in this country.
King once said, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualist concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Here, King’s words urge all Americans to disavow themselves of apathy and self-absorption to work toward the greater good of justice for all.
Collectively, the insightful words of Parks, Randolph and King continue to reverberate today, and Americans of all backgrounds should embrace their timeless messages. Those and other voices of the past can provide renewed momentum toward crushing resurgent racist attitudes today.