With All Due Respect: The Importance Of Black History Month

Feb 25, 2015

February may be the shortest month, but from Groundhog Day to Presidents Day it doesn't lack for special days of recognition. WJCT's occasional commentator Jay Solomon examines one of the observances in this edition of With All Due Respect.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in St. Johns County.
Credit Flagler College

Happy Canned Food Month. Surprised? Were you expecting American Heart Month? Well, it's that too, along with eight other "months" in February. Including, of course, Black History Month.

I've never heard any complaints about Heart Month or even Canned Food Month, so why do I hear negatives about Black History Month?

Such as: "Other groups don't have months, you don't see months for white people." Or: "Slavery happened a long time ago, why can't they just get over it?" 

Why? A phrase from America's great 20th century novelist, William Faulkner of Mississippi sums it up: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The Atlantic slave trade lasted 400 years. When it ended, it wasn't like a game where one starts over on equal  footing. The Declaration of Independence says "all men are created equal," but that didn't make it so. And 89 years later when Congress passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, racial disparity still wasn't over. 

Tennessee didn't ratify the 13th amendment until 1977 -- 114 years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. But that's nothing compared to what African Americans endured during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, then the Jim Crow and Ku Klux Klan era and beyond. The last verified lynching in the US, that of 19-year-old Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama (a random victim) was just 34 years ago.

The 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote , but poll taxes, literacy tests  and terrorist-style violence stifled their balloting. Nearly a hundred  years later in 1965, the same year as the Selma to Montgomery Alabama Freedom march, the Voting Rights Act passed,  clearing the path for African American voter registration.

Fifty years after that -- just two years ago -- the US Supreme Court ruled that certain provisions involving enforcement of the Voting Rights Act are no longer needed and thus unconstitutional. Really

"Slavery happened a long time ago. Why can't they just get over it?"

The past is never dead.  It's not even past.

I don't think black Americans in Jacksonville typically wake up thinking about slavery. But consider the toll from such formerly majority-sanctioned policies as segregated schools, housing, public accommodations and transit. Racially defined neighborhoods with limited resources for food shopping, medical care and recreation.  Restricted employment opportunities, even in police and fire departments. Yes, it's better now and improving, but the vestiges  of such inequities do not disappear with the stroke of a pen. 

Black History Month is important at least as much for non-blacks as for African Americans. We need to understand the struggle; we need to appreciate the achievement, tenacity and love. We need to embrace a rich heritage with the complexity of the most intricate family quilt, one that too many of us fail to recognize. 

Not convinced? Political scientists from Harvard and Stanford recently published a study of southern whites residing in the more than 1300 counties where slave labor once supported large cotton plantations. To briefly sum it up, they report the 36,000 individuals surveyed are more likely to oppose affirmative action policies and express racial resentment and colder feelings toward blacks than those living in nearby areas that had few slaves.

The study argues that emancipation was a cataclysmic labor disruption and so, following the Civil War, Southern whites faced political and economic incentives to reinforce racist norms and institutions until machines replaced black hands in the field in the 1930s. This, it says, produced racially conservative political attitudes, which in turn have been passed down locally across generations. In short, slavery still impacts contemporary politics. 

The study contradicts many standing theories regarding the persistence of racism, but I doubt many black Americans would be surprised by the findings.

The past is never dead.  It's not even past.

That's why Black History is relevant for all of us: it's a time to learn, to understand, and to remember.

With all due respect, I'm Jay Solomon

Veteran broadcaster Jay Solomon's "With All Due Respect" commentaries can be heard occasionally on First Coast Connect.