- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Once again it is Black History Month, a time when Americans of all colors increasingly ask, among other questions, whether we need to have Black History Month.

Or maybe we don’t remember well enough to ask. In New York, for example, four years after the state created a commission to promote the teaching of black history in public schools, the New York Times reports that the commission has never met and several positions remain unfilled. Is that state’s black history commission already history?

Other states, such as Illinois, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan and Colorado, have adopted legislation similar to New York’s requiring that black history be included in public school curricula along with a variety of other ethnic experiences. In fact, that sounds a lot like what black scholar Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he founded the concept as “Negro History Week.”

“We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history,” he said in 1926. “What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race, hate and religious prejudice.”

If ever there was a month when African American history was significant, it is this one. Abraham Lincoln - you remember “the Great Emancipator?” - was born exactly 200 years ago on Feb. 12. A hundred years later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, was born on Lincoln’s birthday. A century later we have our first biracial president. What a country.

Which raises a question I’ve pondered increasingly in recent years about the NAACP and Black History Month. If they weren’t around, would anyone notice?

A lot of people ask, now that Americans of all colors have put an African American in the White House, how much more “advancement” do we need?

Long before Mr. Obama came along, most of the founding agenda of the NAACP was achieved with the hard-won victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. A 1908 race riot in which seven died in Springfield, Ill., led to the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A few blocks away and a hundred years later, Mr. Obama launched his presidential campaign in that same town.

Mr. Obama’s victory sparked an outpouring of heartfelt flag-waving patriotism across color lines unlike any seen since the September 11 terrorist attacks - and under much happier, hope-filled circumstances.

Appropriately, civil rights leaders like the NAACP’s new president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, 35, are asked where the movement goes from here. In interviews, he has pointed in the way most traditional black leaders do, to statistics. It is still too easy to find tragically big statistical gaps between blacks and whites in income, prison incarceration, academic achievement and the like.

Yet, since at least the 1980s, color alone has not told the whole story. The gaps between haves and have-nots in black America have grown larger than the gaps between blacks and whites. Mr. Obama himself has pointed out that it would not be fair to give preference in college admissions, for example, to his daughters based on race when they obviously are more advantaged than many high-achieving white students.

Mr. Obama’s hardly the first person to make that modest class-based argument, but it’s hard to think of anyone else who could do it with as much moral authority.

Yet when I, among others, have made this point to chairman Julian Bond and other NAACP leaders, they tend to rebuff the argument, saying their emphasis is on civil rights, not social action. But Lincoln offers a valuable lesson here. He defended slavery and white supremacy on several notable occasions early in his rise, but changed his mind when he received new information, partly with the help of the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass.

As national NAACP leaders ponder their next century, a new generation of local leaders is looking for new ways to close the gaps in parenting, mentoring and other social problems that lawsuits, elections and protest marches can’t solve alone. If so, we will be able to look at the NAACP with continued admiration and without saying that its best days are behind it.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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