- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2001

Black History Month was founded as "Negro History Week" in 1926 by famed historian, Carter G. Woodson. When asked why he chose the month of February for the celebration, he answered "I believe that the three greatest Americans were born during that month," and he listed them in their order of importance: George Washington, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson placed Douglass before Lincoln because he felt that Douglass contributed significantly in helping to make Lincoln the better man that Lincoln became.

What is rarely commented upon, however, is the simple fact that two of the three men are white and one, Washington, was a lifelong slave owner, which Woodson the second African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard did not feel detracted from his greatness.

Rarely do we find slavery being argued for as a good, certainly not by a former slave, but that is exactly what we discover in Grant Parker´s brilliant translation with commentary of The Agony of Asar: A Thesis On Slavery by the Former Slave, Jacobus Elisas Johannes Capitein, 1717-1747 (Markus Wiener, $42.95, $16.95 paper, 182 pages, illus.). Mr. Parker is a professor at Duke University, where he is a classical scholar. The very first paragraph of the book is evocative:

"It may come as a surprise to contemporary readers that an 18th-century scholar should have argued for the compatibility of slavery and Christian faith, and should in effect have defended the moral legitimacy of such bondage. The surprise would be heightened if it is added that the person arguing this case had himself once been a slave."

Jacobus Capitein was born in 1717 in that part of Africa that is today the nation of Ghana. He was taken by his master to the Netherlands where he was eventually emancipated and where he also received a classical and Christian education. It seems that this was not uncommon. Many Christian slave masters brought Africans to Europe, educated them and afterwards returned them to their native land as Christian missionaries.

Saint Augustine, who was also an African, in his book "The City of God," explained slavery as the result of original sin and by implication defended its existence. Both African authors argued that one´s spiritual slavery to sin was far more harmful than mere slavery to a mortal master. It is the soul which is eternal that must be saved, the body which is ephemeral is much less important. Therefore, the essence of this argument is the irony that slavery is not only tolerable but through Christian conversion can indeed set one free, though still in bondage.

What most readers will find absolutely fascinating is the section of the book that is titled, "African Intellectuals in 18th Century Europe," where the author briefly describes the lives of those blacks who were not returned to Africa but remained in Europe as highly-educated free men, more than a few of whom taught at some of the continent´s leading universities and were embraced and respected by their white colleagues as legitimate scholars. Although it examines a sensitive subject that most would prefer to ignore for any number of reasons, nonetheless, this is an excellent book that merits serious attention.

In Cold War and Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton University Press, $29.95, 330 pages, illus.), Mary L. Dudziak, a professor at the University of Southern California astutely explores the intimate relationship between the policy of communist containment and the civil rights movement. She begins by writing:

"Because the United States was the presumptive leader of the free world, racism in the nation was a matter of international concern."

Her book thoughtfully and thoroughly documents how ridiculous and hypocritical we appeared to the post-colonial, newly emerging nations of Africa and Asia by championing the ideals of freedom, democracy and economic equity around the world while at the same time shamelessly denying access to those very same principles to millions of Americans at home.

The time frame here is the immediate aftermath of World War II, a period of heightened rivalry between the United States and the then-Soviet Union. We discover the many high-ranking members of the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations who were embarrassed and frustrated because powerful racist politicians in Congress refused to adopt an agenda that would lead to civil rights progress in the South. I found the author´s discussion of the international impact of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and the subsequent forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 to be exceptionally well done.

The author´s writing style and her expansive command of the subject gives the work its immediacy. The reader has the feeling of being actually present, an eyewitness to those nation-changing events. She explains: "President Eisenhower´s strong stand in sending in federal troops was a clear statement that the federal government stood behind federal law."

In a very real sense, President John F. Kennedy is the "hero" of this compelling story because he was the first Cold War-era president who confronted the challenge of communist leaders abroad both diplomatically and militarily; and he also was first to recognize that it was the rabid racists in his own country that were sabotaging whatever success he hoped to achieve in winning the hearts and minds of the mostly colored peoples of the third world who by mid-century had become a political force that demanded America´s recognition.

Furthermore, Kennedy was a serious student of the Civil War and he understood that the work that Lincoln had begun a century before with the Emancipation Proclamation remained undone and it was his responsibility to finish the task. It is remarkable to realize how enthusiastically his immediate successors, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, embraced his goals and achieved his objectives.

A Call To Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King (Warner, $22.95, 225 pages, illus.) is a tour de force compiled by King biographer Clayburne Carson of Stanford University and his colleague, Kris Shepard. Although there are only 11 speeches here, they eloquently represent the master at his finest.

In reading his remarks one is reminded how much of an original thinker King was and how highly he valued individual intellectual independence, so much so that I do not believe that he nor Malcolm X for that matter could serve as black leaders today. That is because neither would surrender their freedom of thought and blindly subscribe to whatever is the prevailing passion of the moment which is exactly what most so-called black leaders now do.

King´s genius was that he intuitively knew that America truly wanted to be a "Christian nation" in more than name only. He understood that we have freedom of religious choice as a basic right of citizenship, but he also knew that Christmas is a federal holiday for a reason. After all, Christianity is at the very core of our civic culture. And so the title of the book is very appropriate, for what made King the great leader that he became was his simple and unrelenting appeal to the country´s Christian conscience. In one of his speeches he said, "Through prayer we are going to transform Police Chief Bull Connor into a steer."

King´s commitment was to win the war against racism through love. To him love was the essence of Christian doctrine. In a speech delivered on Aug. 16, 1967, he said:

"What I´m trying to get you to see this morning is that a man may be self-centered in his self-denial and self-righteous in his self-sacrifice. His generosity may feed his ego, and his piety may feed his pride. So without love, benevolence becomes egotism …"

Martin Luther King loved language and was as much a gifted writer as he was a gifted orator. Unlike most current American leaders, he was extremely well read in history and literature, especially the classics, and therefore fully understood the power of carefully-crafted sentences. Thus his speeches were a form of public poetry the likes of which we have not heard since he died in 1968, nor may ever hear again.

One cannot avoid becoming tearful when reading some of these pages. They were intended to move the spirit and that they do. This book belongs in every American household; it will help us better appreciate what it means to truly be an American patriot … someone who unconditionally loves their country even when their country treats them as second-class citizens.

Thus it is indeed fitting that King is now the only American to have a federal holiday in his honor and that his recently approved memorial in the nation´s capital will be on the tidal basin where he who held no public office whatsoever will be surrounded by memorials to the country´s four greatest presidents: Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. In the end King nobly sacrificed his life so that their rhetoric could be translated into reality.

Edward Smith is the director of American Studies at American University.

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