Civil Rights History Is Now

Every January we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with somber reverence. We reflect on all he did for the civil rights movement and what more he might have done had he not been assassinated— thus robbing the world of his brilliance, wisdom, and leadership. When February arrives, we celebrate Black History Month and all of the accomplishments and hard-won victories of black people around the world.

I have always been a curious person and that curiosity has likely contributed to my love of learning. Every February I can count on finding out about a new, unsung hero of Black History or becoming aware of another accomplishment by one of the names I’ve known for years. The part of Black History that causes me to struggle is how recent and present it really is.

I was a young child when America celebrated her bicentennial, 200 years. There were drawings, paintings, and re-enactments depicting white men wearing powdered wigs with waistcoats, knickers, and all sorts of colonial garb. The few women included wore grand gowns filled out with bustles and held in by corsets. If any black people were included, they were slaves. It was crystal clear to me this was history; the people looked and sounded
like historical figures and lived in a world of muskets, prairies, and other things so far removed from our time.

There’s the rub for me with African American History. So much of our history is recent. We don’t have to rely on artists’ renderings; we have
photos of many of the pivotal events. We even have video of luminaries like Dr. King, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, Congressman John Lewis, and James Baldwin — just to name a few. Even when we think of “long ago” history, we have actual photographs of figures like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Ruby Bridges, and others we regard as historical figures (Rev. Al Sharpton is only 65 years old). But they aren’t so far removed from the here and now. As Jonathan Capehart reminded us, many of the historical figures from the civil rights movement are STILL ALIVE.

And (somewhat sadly to me), there are still plenty of firsts happening. The first black astronaut is 77 years old as of this writing. Hank Aaron is 85; the first black Miss America is 56. The first black Mayor of New York City is still alive, and America’s first black President is only 58 years old. Surely, there are more firsts to come.

They say history has a way of repeating itself, and they might be right. Scenes from Ferguson, MO; Chicago, IL; Memphis, TN; Dallas, TX and other American cities play like news clips from the 1960s and 1970s. We need to look to our past to secure and protect our future. Everything won can be lost; we cannot let that happen. Let’s look back, but keep moving forward.