Just as Carter G. Woodson's motto "it's never too late to learn" suggests, Black History Month is commemorative. It is a moment to remember and honor those that have helped African-Americans achieve equality and those who are continuing the fight for equality. This means re-learning (or discovering for the first time) those individuals or events who have made their mark on our community, nation, and history. Odyssey World Trek believes that by learning about other cultures you learn more about your own community. In this dispatch, we decided to reverse the trend and learn more about the Americans: to be more exact, the period after the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. Of course, this is only an overview of the history. By beginning to understanding where we have come, we can better understand where we are going and the larger global picture.
The period after the Civil War is called Reconstruction. During this period, the United States was rebuilding itself after four years of battle. People were trying to recollect and re-establish their lives. For African-Americans, this meant gaining their freedom. Although the Thirteenth Amendment signed on December 18, 1865 states specifically that slavery is prohibited in the United States, the South created laws undermining the Federal decree called the "Jim Crow" laws. Named after Thomas Rice's impersonation of an "old, crippled" African-American named Jim Crow, the laws were a subtle way to continue segregating Blacks from whites without actually calling it "slavery." For example, in public transportation, there were separate sections for the whites and Blacks; also no African-American could be the barber for a white woman or girl.
The definition of what it meant to be Black also changed: if a person had any African blood in their genealogy, they were considered Black and were subject to the "Jim Crow" laws. In 1870, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment allowing all persons of the United States the right to vote. In similar fashion to the "Jim Crow" laws, there were laws created enforcing a poll tax and a pre-voting literacy test. It was a foregone conclusion that the former slaves could not afford nor pass the test; thus nullifying the Fifteenth Amendment. During the 1890's, the Ku Klux Klan began lynching African-Americans. Yet, there were some positive events and role models. For example, in Louisiana, PBS Pinchback served as Governor; Hiram R Revels and Blanche K Bruce were U.S. Senators; and, perhaps as a precursor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Carter G Woodson, Booker T. Washington stressed education and learning as a tool for the social advancement of both the individual and the Black community.
The early 1900's were an awakening of Black awareness and pride. As African-Americans were becoming more educated, they were voicing their identities and culture. In the summer of 1919, twenty-six race riots occurred in cities across the United States due to lack of jobs and housing; these were caused directly and indirectly by discrimination against African-Americans. At the same time, there was an artistic revolution occurring in Harlem, aka the Harlem Renaissance. Some notable writers of that era were: WEB DuBois, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay (whose poem "If We Must Die" became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement), and Alaine Locke (whose essay "The New Negro" also became a hotbed for discussion.) Jazz became a prominent and popular musical form. African-Americans also made strides in theater. The question "who are African-Americans?" became the central theme running through the creative works and social movements of the age.
The Civil Rights movement was an affirmation of the identity that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance, which occurred from 1954 to 1965 (though it should not be limited to these years.) The first step towards desegregating schools was the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education trial. The major point of the case was that "separate but equal" was no longer sufficient; there had to be equality. In 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred. Two years later, desegregation was introduced to Little Rock, Arkansas when nine African-American students were allowed to attend Central High. (Initially the National Guard was called to protect their entry.) In 1960, the Sit-in Campaign occurred at the counter of a Woolworth's (it used to be a coffee shop) in Greensboro, North Carolina: four students protested at the counter until they were served. In 1961 the Freedom Rides occurred, hoping to end segregation of buses. In the next year the Mississippi Riot took place after James Meredith became the first Black to enroll at the University of Mississippi. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama became the center of the movement. Because it was one the most heavily segregated cities, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers began a massive campaign of sit-ins and protests. The same year MLK delivered his "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington. Then, in 1965, in the beginning of a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama terror struck. The protest was to voice outrage against police brutality and the death of a student by a State Trooper during a demonstration. Like every movement, there were high points and desperate times. Yet each event paved the way for another event and the determination of a people to gain equality. Moreover the movement created a state of mind and identity that resonated in the culture. The Civil Rights movement also placed discrimination towards African-Americans on a national level and forced the majority of people to take a stance and change the way people were treated.
The Civil Rights movement still resounds today. Because of our past heroes, African-Americans today shoulder powerful leadership positions and roles, contributing to the formation of the United States of the future. The Civil Rights movement had a powerful influence on other people's struggle for human rights. An obvious example is the movement which culminated in the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Conversely, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was greatly influenced by the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi's victorious struggle for India's independence through a policy of non-violent resistance. This exchange of social action across cultures was discussed by W.E.B. DuBois in "Gandhi and the American Negroes" and Chester Bowles in "What Negroes Can Learn from Gandhi." In this sense, world events of the past and present are not isolated events but are continuously affecting other cultures. Understanding the events that have shaped our world can help one understand current events, their effect on the future, and, hopefully, prevent future crimes against humanity. The Civil Rights movement paved the way for the Women's Rights movement. Political events often translate into music, literature, and the arts. For example, the musical genre "funk" was created as a way to voice the discontent and identity of a generation of African-Americans. Ralph Ellison wrote "Invisible Man" to depict the life of a fictitious African-American from the 1920's to the 1950's; through the story, he introduces the concept of "the New Negro" and other foundational elements of the Civil Rights movement. There would be no Will Smith or Dr. Dre if there weren't a Nat King Cole or Claude McKay.
affirmation - positive assertion
conversely - opposite or contrary in direction, action, sequence
genre - kind, sort, style
nullify - To make of no value or consequence
resonated - echoes
resound - to sound loudly
Although African-Americans have accomplished a lot, we all must remain vigilant about discrimination (in all its inconspicuous forms.) Dr.King's struggle for equality and the mandate of his speech will only be realized when all people are free. Black History Month serves as a reminder of the potential oppression of the world and challenge to design new ways to help make a change.