- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004

February is Black History Month, a time to commemorate the long and arduous advances of black Americans in the United States. It was started by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as Negro History Week. r. Woodson was the second black American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. The first was W.E.B. DuBois, who was born in 1868 and died Aug. 27, 1963, the day before Martin Luther King delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. Also in 1926, Howard University received its first black president, Mordecai Johnson. From the time of its founding (by the federal government) in 1867, all of the school’s previous presidents were white.

Mr. Woodson lived in Washington’s famed Shaw community and is buried in Congressional Cemetery. His former home is currently being restored by the National Park Service with the goal of opening it to the public as a museum.

Understandably, Mr. Woodson was often asked why he selected February, the month with the least amount of days, for the annual celebration. And his answer was always the same: “I believe that the three greatest Americans were born in February, George Washington, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.” He placed Douglass before Lincoln because he believed that Douglass helped to make Lincoln the better man that Lincoln became. Lincoln would have certainly agreed with that characterization since he frequently referred to Douglass as “the most meritorious man that I have ever met.”

Indeed, on the evening of Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Day, Douglass came to the White House. Lincoln, since he had seen him in the audience that morning, wanted to know what he thought of his speech, and Douglass said, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.” ‘No, no,” Lincoln answered (in a loud voice so all could hear) “You must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.”

Lest we forget, two of the three Black History Month celebrants were white — one a life-long slave owner who became the nation’s first president and the other not an abolitionist but a man who evolved into becoming the author of the Emancipation Proclamation. And Douglass himself was half-white. His father was a slave master who remained unknown to him.

Clearly, Mr. Woodson understood with regard to Washington and Lincoln that if being “great” is supposed to be synonymous with also being personally pure, then no one can ever be called such since we are all so deeply flawed.

On a certain level it can be argued that the history of the United States is the history of Black America. Blacks have fought in all of America’s wars, live in all 50 of its states and have made massive contributions to the enrichment of American culture in every imaginable field of endeavor.

In 1807, the international slave trade was abolished and a few years later, in 1822, Liberia was established by the American Colonization Society (with support from the federal government) for the purpose of providing those free blacks who wanted to return to their ancestral soil the opportunity to do so. Surprisingly, only a small number of blacks accepted the offer. What many of the society’s white sponsors could not fathom was that the vast majority of blacks, whether free or slave, living in the North or the South, had come to see the United States as their home.

Immediately after the conclusion of the Civil War, three new amendments — within only five years — were added to the Constitution specifically for the protection and promotion of the welfare of blacks. The 13th Amendment of 1865 abolished slavery; the 14th Amendment of 1868 (whose all-encompassing elasticity allows it to be frequently applied to settling all sorts of sensitive issues that transcend the scope of its original intent) awarded blacks the rights of citizenship (which reversed the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott ruling), and the 15th Amendment of 1870, which provided black males with the right to vote.

The last time the Constitution had been amended was in 1804, and it would not be amended again until 1913.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ignited a firestorm of social revolution that would change America forever. The following year, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and the famous public transportation boycott that ensued would be led by a young preacher from Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr., who nine years later would win the Nobel Prize for Peace (40 years ago this year). In 1957, the year of Sputnik, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of the Normandy D-Day invasion, ordered troops to safeguard the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

Today, the Rev. King is the only American that has a federal holiday solely in his honor. His future memorial in Washington (the site was selected a few years ago) will be on the west side of the Tidal Basin facing the Jefferson Memorial, Nearby are the Washington Monument and the memorials to Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, undoubtedly America’s four greatest presidents. For King, who never sought or held any public office whatsoever, to be recognized in such an august setting is truly remarkable and a reflection of the fact that those who opposed him eventually came to acknowledge that they were wrong and he was right in his determination to translate Thomas Jefferson’s soaring rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence — “That all men are created equal” — into social reality.

The expansion of civil rights continued into the 1960s with the passing of the Civil Rights Act and the creation of the War on Poverty in 1964, the passing of the Voting Rights Act and the emergence of federally mandated affirmative action programs in 1965 and the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.

Fifty years ago no one in the United States — black or white — could have imagined the racial progress that has been achieved. For example, today we have a black secretary of state, national security adviser, CEO of Time-Warner. The list of other black luminaries in both elected and appointed government positions (and the private sector as well) is exceedingly extensive.

However, in spite of all of these formidable achievements (and no other captive people in the world — whose presence in an alien land began as them being merely categorized as “property” — can equal these accomplishments), today black America is in deep, deep trouble, and nowhere else can those troubles be better seen than in our nation’s capital.

The number of fatherless homes, school drop-outs, drug abusers, teenage pregnancies and black-on-black crimes, especially murders, is absolutely appalling. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, if they were to come back to life and turned on BET (Black Entertainment Television), along with the vast majority of other blacks of their generation, would be mortified by what they saw, which would be nothing less than black people performing as oversexed, mindless exhibitionists, validating the image of them harbored by the most rabid of racists. Such media-generated images spawn real-life imitations, which produce nothing less than the most disastrous consequences.

The wanton violence and vulgarity associated with so much of gangsta rap and hip-hop music and videos have contributed greatly to the self-degradation of so many potentially promising black youth. Sadly, far too many black leaders within the realms of politics, business, entertainment and athletics, but especially in the black church, traditionally the self-anointed guardian of the black community, have become silent witnesses to the lethal assault upon their own culture by demented members of that culture. They all behave as if they have forgotten that silence is always synonymous, regardless of the circumstances, with consent.

Edward C. Smith is director of American studies at American University.

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