Use black history lessons to move forward today

Since their inception nearly 100 years 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 2024 unfolds, the observance also provides myriad opportunities to reflect upon those contributions, 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 whose birthday is observed today. Over the decades, the observance expanded to one full month and spread to all corners of our country.

That proud tradition continues to play out throughout the nation. President Joe Biden has proclaimed February 2024 as National Black History Month.

“I call upon public officials, educators, librarians and all the people of the United States to observe this month with relevant programs, ceremonies and activities,” his recent directive urged.

The Mahoning Valley has answered Biden’s call with a wealth of programming and special events, including:

● An art exhibition titled “Greatness Revealed: The Art of African Americans at the Butler Institute of American Art” through March 1.

● A series of programs focusing on the importance of African-American churches 5:30 p.m. Feb. 19 and 20 at the Warren Heritage Center.

● Special ceremonies at branches of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, including a trading-card contest of major figures in African-American history throughout the month, a program on black American inventors 4:30 p.m. Feb. 21 at the main branch and a braiding class 6 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Austintown branch

Those events and others 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, lackluster educational achievement in too many black communities and 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 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 Montgomery, Ala., seamstress who in 1955 refused to give up her seat on a city bus, and in so doing ignited a vibrant era of civil rights activism and achievements.

“Each person must live their life as a model for others,” she once pleaded. Parks lived that philosophy in exemplary fashion.

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 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 should 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 and building a more colorblind society today.



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