Monday, 16 February 2015

Instruments of Peace

        President Barak Obama may not have had World Day of Peace in mind when he spoke on February 5. Regardless, his speech was a blueprint for how to approach the goal of peace-making. The occasion was the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, an annual tradition since 1953.

The president asked an important question in his speech: "[H]ow do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religion for their own murderous ends?"

Later, he said " [P]erhaps our greatest challenge [is] to see our own reflection in each other; to be our brother’s keepers and sister’s keepers, and to keep faith with one another. "

President Obama, one of the most powerful leaders in the world, spoke candidly of doubt and humility. He talked about the need for freedom of all peoples: not political freedom alone, but also freedom from want. He spoke of the underlying law, acknowledged by all religions and by those who have no religion but do have a sense of ethics and morality, "that Golden Rule that we should treat one another as we wish to be treated."

           Peace is threatened on so many fronts: in the Ukraine, in the Middle East, in parts of Asia, in parts of Africa. Even in places where  there are no open political conflicts, there are violent circumstances that challenge stability and well-being: Mexico, Venezuela, the Philippines, Russia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, to name just a few. President Obama challenged each of us to do something about that. He said to the diverse, international audience, "Whatever our beliefs, whatever our traditions, we must seek to be instruments of peace...."

Words are power. Words that are used correctly can achieve amazing things. The president's speech included many words that can contribute to peace. I've prepared a vocabulary of these words, and added a few more that may be useful. This vocabulary is titled "The Search for Peace," and you can find it at:

If you'd like to hear the president's speech, you can find it at:
If you'd like to read it, the text is at:

President's Day in the United States

For many people in the U.S., Monday, February 16, 2015 is a holiday. (Since Valentine's Day falls on Saturday this year,  people who like romantic getaways can enjoy a long weekend celebration.) It is the observance of George Washington's Birthday, which has come to be known as "Presidents' Day."

George Washington was the first U.S. president. He was unanimously elected to the office in 1788 and again in 1792. Each state that was a member of the union (in other words, each state that had adopted the then new U.S. Constitution) selected electors to the Electoral College. This body had the duty of choosing the president by vote of its members.

At that time, electors were chosen by popular vote only in some of the states. Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania left the choice entirely up to the voters. New Hampshire had a mixed system.  The other five of the ten states which had adopted the U.S. Constitution chose electors by a vote of the state legislatures. Even states that selected electors by popular vote limited that vote to white males who owned property.

George Washington was the unanimous choice because most of the people in positions of power trusted him. The common people trusted him, too. He had been the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War, and he had presided at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that wrote the U.S. Constitution. He distrusted organized political parties and warned against their dangers when he retired, voluntarily, after his second term of office.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

What's Black History Month About?

         February was designated Black History Month by President Gerald Ford in 1976, to coincide with the bicentennial (200th birthday) of the United States. February is particularly suitable for this observance because the birthdays of  both President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass fall in February. It was Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) which effectively ended slavery in the United States. Douglass, a contemporary of Lincoln,  was a former slave who won his freedom through escape to the north in 1838. He became an important activist for the cause of human rights, supporting both abolition of slavery and equal rights for women.

There was a backlash against black citizens ("freedmen") after the U.S. Civil War.  Little by little, new means of keeping African Americans in the position of second class citizens were created. Segregation was enforced by both law and custom: blacks and whites could not use the same rest rooms, wait for public transportation in the same waiting rooms, or drink from the same water fountains. Black and white kids couldn't go to the same schools.

        This system began to break down in the 1950s. In 1951, a little girl named Linda Brown tried to enroll in an elementary school near her home in Kansas. Linda was in the third grade. The black school she was supposed to go to involved a 6 block walk, followed by another mile on a bus, while the white school was just 7 blocks away. She was denied, and her parents, with other parents, filed suit. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate schools were inherently unequal, and that Linda and all others in her circumstances were entitled to relief and equal protection of the laws.  This was the beginning of school integration in the United States.

A single white passenger on a
Montgomery bus during the boycott
           The next big event in the Civil Rights Movement was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956. It arose from the refusal of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamstress, to give up her bus seat to a white man in early December 1955. City ordinance in Montgomery, Alabama required that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, and if all white seats were full, blacks had to offer their seats to whites.

             Martin Luther King Jr. had become the pastor of a Montgomery Baptist Church in the fall of 1954. Now he was selected to head up organizing a bus boycott to protest unequal treatment of blacks and whites on the buses. Dr. King firmly believed in non-violence, and the patient, determined boycott of the bus service  helped end bus desegregation in December 1956.  There was resistance: between December 21, 1955 and January 10, 1957, there were attacks on black riders and four churches and two homes were bombed. But in the end, Montgomery accepted the inevitable.
Frederick Douglass, ex-slave,
writer, and activist in 1800s

               By 1976, the Civil Rights Movement had achieved a great deal. It had ended segregation and discrimination in voter registration with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After mass demonstrations and strong southern resistance, voting rights for blacks were strengthened with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

           The contributions African Americans have made to U.S. history and culture were no longer ignored.  February was set aside as a time to remember the historical, scientific, literary and political legacy that black Americans have given to the country.  From Frederick Douglass to Muhammad Ali (Olympic gold medalist in boxing in 1960, heavyweight world champion boxer in 1964, 1974-1977, and political activist), from George Washington Carver (1864- 1943; agricultural researcher) to Thurgood Marshall (1908 - 1993; first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice), from Louis Armstrong (1901-1971; jazz innovator) to Alvin Alley  (1931- 1989; dancer and choreographer), and from Crispus Attucks (1723-1770; freedman killed leading sailors and dockworkers to protest British troops in Boston) to Alice Walker (1944 - present; novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1983 and poet)--African Americans in all fields are celebrated during February for what they have given to United States culture and history.

              It is worth noting that the U.S.  appreciation of black history motivated Canada to also observe a Black History Month in February. The United Kingdom, too, declared a Black History Month, but celebrates it in October as an educational tool to inspire children of color who are beginning the school term.