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 2019 begins today, 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. Nationwide, “Black Migrations” has been selected as the theme behind 2019 observances. That theme is an apt one, considering the fiery focus on immigration policies in our country. It also reflects the geohistorical path of African-Americans from the fields of the Deep South to the factories of the North and Midwest. In a broader metaphorical sense, it also celebrates the increasingly strong movement of black Americans into the mainstream of American politics and business.
On that compelling topic and others, the Mahoning Valley joins the nation in this monthlong commemoration 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.
BLACK EXPERIENCE IN FOCUS
The observance also 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.
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.
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.
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.