Ah, February, the month of the year that causes me to yearn for spring! It is also the month in the U.S. of remembrances and celebrations. The birthdays of two former U.S. Presidents — Abraham Lincoln and George Washington — are remembered each year with flags flying on Presidents Day, on Feb. 15 this year, and just the day before the 14th, when people honor loved ones with Valentines and roses. Also, the entire month of February has been designated for years as Black History Month.
In 1926, esteemed historian Carter G. Woodson joined with an association that honored African American life and history to celebrate what they called Negro History Week, in February. The group chose February because both President Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, and Frederick Douglass, the great African-American orator and abolitionist, were born in February.
In 1976, Pres. Gerald Ford, along with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, urged Americans to participate in celebrating February as Black History Month. President Ford asked the public “to seize the opportunity to honor the too often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, all U.S. presidents have continued to observe February as Black History Month.
How many U.S. citizens even remember the national designation of February as Black History Month — or if they do remember, even care to give it a second thought? Here in Evanston, there is very little, if any, local public displays of commemoration on the history of African-Americans. I hope that the public school teachers have at least spent one class period teaching young people about the importance of Africa- American history to the development of our nation.
I was born in Kansas, and I attended the first few years of elementary school there, where I saw signs in café windows that stated “no coloreds allowed” (and that meant Latinos, too). I was probably more aware of racism than my counterparts who lived in Wyoming. Few African-Americans lived in the rural west in the 1950s and ’60s.
I remember when I first moved to Evanston in 1954, a girlfriend and I were talking about racism and she said there was no racism in Evanston. My response to her was, “Of course not, there is only one Black person in town and he lives in a shack by the railroad tracks and plays music in a bar. He stays “in his place,” and I went on to explain that I meant he didn’t attempt to integrate into white society. I don’t know how I was so aware of racism at that time but, looking back, it was probably because of discussions with my mother about racism and prejudice.
I will never forget the civil rights protests of the ’60s and watching on TV news of the lynchings of hundreds of Black people in the south, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Black sit-ins at lunch counters, the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed; the torture and killing of the three Freedom Summer activists who were just signing up Black people to vote.
I remember well the Freedom Riders and the bombing of their bus, the horrible police brutality at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Alabama, the assassinations of Pres. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; and, finally, Pres. Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When we don’t know our complete history as a nation — the good, the bad, and the ugly — we tend to repeat it over and over. I see that happening today with the white persons’ anger at the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I hear people say defensively, “All lives matter, not only Black ones.”
Yes, that is true, and doesn’t need to be said because whites have not been the victims of systemic racism embedded in our nation from the beginning — problems that continue to this day for minorities. In order to understand the term “systemic racism” we must educate ourselves.
White Americans must admit that this country was founded and built on the backs of Black slaves and that slavery continued in the form of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Those examples are blatant, but what is even more insidious and tends to divide Americans is the subtle pervasive hatred based only on differences in skin color.
This nation was founded and prospered on the backs of Black slaves from the time of George Washington, who was a slave owner, to the present day, when there are a disproportionate number of persons of color in our prisons for the same crime for which a white person receives a lighter sentence — or none at all.
Whites are not subjected to the same harassment Blacks receive at the voting booth; they do not have to worry that their sons will be targeted by the police based only on the color of their skin and shot for holding a cellphone in their hand; or because, overwhelmingly, due to low-paying jobs, Black people are often forced to live in tenements where greedy landlords expose them to hazardous conditions.
I realize that since the passing of the Civil Rights Act followed by the Voting Rights Act, there have been significant advances for the improvement in the lives for People of Color in our country, but in the last four years I think we have regressed. We have seen small children of color separated from their parents and placed in cages; we have seen the result of years of systemic racism in the brutal deaths of people of color at the hands of racist law enforcement officers; we have seen riots and uprisings and fear expressed in myriad unhealthy behaviors.
The United States calls itself a Christian nation, but Americans continue to kill and maim those people who really walk their talk by the practice of giving love in return to those who hate and act with violence.
It takes a special person to be able to resist responding to violence with violence. Those who followed Martin Luther King Jr. and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi did just that. One of the Civil Rights movement leaders, John Lewis, along with many others — of all colors — continued to practice nonviolent resistance.
I just finished reading our local library’s copy of Jon Meacham’s 2020 biography of John Lewis titled “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and The Power of Hope.” Lewis, a sharecropper’s son, rose from poverty to become a civil rights icon and later served for decades as a U.S. congressman until his death on July 17, 2020.
Lewis was a shining example of one who never abandoned his commitment to nonviolence in working toward the goals of equality and justice for all. As a teenager, he participated in sit-ins at lunch counters where Black community members were denied service and suffered beatings and verbal abuse. He was repeatedly beaten and jailed by law enforcement officers when he participated in peaceful demonstrations.
Lewis was beaten over the head and nearly died at the march in Selma, Alabama, over the Pettus bridge; and he was even arrested several times as a congressman walking into the U.S. Capitol — because of his skin color, he was a “suspect.” Through all of the abuse and humiliation, Lewis was an example of one who embodied Christian love.
I am writing this column because I hope to encourage readers to get educated on how important all people are to the success of our democracy, regardless of skin color, religion, ethnic background or political differences.
Let the designation of Black History Month challenge each of us to read more history; to talk and listen to those with whom we may not agree or seem to have anything in common with; to open our hearts and minds to each other, as Lewis did, and recognize we are each a significant human being on this great earth we call home. We need each other!