Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 15, 2014

A courageous month for all colors puts skin and character in perspective

— — Black History Month was not always black or even a month. Back in 1926, when Carter G. Woodson originated the observance, the period was termed “Negro History Week.”  As might be expected, there was at first little nationwide support but one of the three states that embraced the concept was West Virginia, along with Delaware and North Carolina. The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., also joined in the movement. Less than a decade later, 46 of the (then) 48 states had some type of related program.

Woodson developed the concept with February as a foundation because of two birthdays — those of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Lincoln, with his historic Emancipation Proclamation, qualified and Douglass was perhaps the Martin Luther King, Jr., of his day as well as a contemporary of Lincoln. Douglass was born in slavery, escaped, gained an excellent education, lived in both America and Europe for a time, and agitated for civil rights his entire life. Both Douglass and Lincoln were tall, imposing figures who commanded respect. Each wore beards in later life. They were known for support of a cause, although Douglass specifically focused on the improvement of race relations during his entire lifetime.

Woodson, the originator of the concept, declared that “if a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and is in danger of being exterminated.”

It was “modern” America, however, which finally produced the idea for an entire month. This originated in 1969 by the Black United Students at Ohio’s Kent State University. Within a year, the first celebration was launched at KSU. The nation itself, during the Bicentennial year of 1976, officially recognized Black History Month. President Gerald R. Ford noted that “Americans should seize the opportunity to recognize the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our country.”

It remains true to this day, although there are many who now refer to the period as African-American Month. One significant supporter of this thought was the late Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded Bethune-Cookman College in Florida. Bethune was so influential, in fact, that she was often referred to as “First Lady of the Struggle” and served as both an official in the  Roosevelt administration as well as president of the National Council of Negro Women. In reference to her family roots, Cookman once said, “For I am my mother’s daughter and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart.”

In keeping with the spirit of independent thought and thinking, some believe there is no real need for this month and one of those is actor Morgan Freeman who says that “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”

A generation ago, Hall of Fame baseball player Frank Robinson had similar thoughts when he was named manager of the Cleveland Indians. Robinson earned headlines as the “first black manager” and he made no secret of the fact that he wished he could just be a manager. Something like the Constitution or Declaration of Independence said (on paper, anyway!) that all men are created equal.

Another well known fellow from down in the Deep South — Georgia, to be exact — made a mighty public statement about those kinds of feelings. It was not in February but in August when Martin Luther King Jr. expressed a desire for the day when everyone would be known “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

For more than a century, few have known the value of character better than the coal miner. Deep underground, far from the sunshine, these men have toiled in the earth and learned that a friend means more than pigmentation.

My father used to say that all miners depended upon each other for help, protection, and production in the mine. He noted that everyone looked just about the same when they emerged from the tunnel at day’s end. It was and remains a wonderful lesson in civil rights.

A great friend who often came to speak to my English classes at Tazewell High School was the late George Dickerson. He was brilliant, humble, and insightful. George wrote a fine book about the divisions and labels that have for far too long been a major reason that this month needed a label of its own.

George summed it up wonderfully in his unique way giving a gentle jab to prejudice of race, “You won’t see me with head all bowed, and I won’t have to talk to loud, You’ll see me standing tall and proud, ‘cause I’m colored.”

No matter what the calendar says, George understood that so are we all.

Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.

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