Each February, the observance of U.S. African-American History Month becomes a time to recognize the contributions of African Americans to history and culture.
Since 1926, this observance, originally known as Negro History Week, brings attention to the sometimes neglected or ignored achievements of African Americans. Negro History Week was conceived by Carter G. Woodson, a graduate of Berea College in Berea, Ky. Woodson was an African American historian whose own life exemplified many triumphs.
From the early 18th century when black settlers came to Kentucky with Daniel Boone, to the present, history is interwoven with Kentucky African Americans’ victories over debilitating odds, their aspirations and their accomplishments. Through it all, African-American and other black citizens have climbed the rough side of the mountain in the face of grueling obstacles.
U.S. African-American History Month also provides the national community an opportunity to assess the current dynamics and problems African Americans and other minorities face and can help those who care and those who govern plot a course for improvement in several areas. Many African Americans continue to plod through conditions as a result of the enslavement of their forebears and the bondage that followed under the brutal hand of racism – a hand that stretches forth in different ways even today whether or not we like to admit it or talk about it.
The legacies of prejudice and segregation that persevered until just 48 years ago still obstruct significant aspects of African-American life. How great it would be if our state and national communities could pull together to diminish until they disappear the lingering problems that continue to damage not only African Americans but the fabric of the whole society. Examples of these problems are hate crime, racial and other profiling, voter suppression, health disparities, prison sentencing discrepancies, red-lining and housing discrimination, and education achievement gaps.
However, as we ponder how far the nation has come in learning to treat people as equals and in recognizing that societal progress depends upon the equal opportunity inherent in the American dream, let’s reflect this month on those whose shoulders today’s strong, young generation can stand. There are many brave souls who poured out an abundance of their energy to help advance the cause of racial equality and justice, and their sweat and blood laid the foundations and made bridges that African Americans and all minorities might cross over to achieve lives of opportunity and prosperity.
Years of brutalization sought to transform a proud and wonderful African people into a new people without knowledge of their names, language, culture, religion or history. People should look back and appreciate the black Americans, white Americans, and other minority Americans who changed the country for the better and ended a long, dark chapter in the nation’s history. These people exemplify the teachings of Martin King, who reminded us that “[t]he measure of a person’s greatness is not in the number of servants they have but in the number of people they serve.”
Let’s grasp the opportunity Black History Month provides to focus on empowering underserved communities, thereby improving the whole of Kentucky. I am often perplexed by discussions that reference “the days of the civil rights movement” as though it somehow ended on a specific date and that we have now been catapulted into a post-racial society. Undoubtedly, during the turbulent times of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, America saw a heightened focus by media on a phase of the movement that helped bring into being significant human and civil rights legislation. However, the movement did not end, and the wailing message of the drum beating for equality should not become silent. New advocates may have joined forces, targets may have been altered, new strategies may have been put in place, but the movement and striving for equality in the state, nation and world continue today.
Society should remain vigilant and put its own mark on history by embracing a coalition of conscience in ever greater numbers, and by making sure the discordant chorus of outdated voices does not drown out the drum’s cry for equality in the state.
John J. Johnson is executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights.