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.

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