As we reflect Black History Month

By Sherry Cobb | Feb 10, 2021

February is Black History Month, chosen because February contains the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, born nine years apart.

Lincoln is honored, of course, for keeping the country whole during the Civil War and for freeing the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

Douglass escaped slavery at 16, then became an abolitionist, widely known for his eloquence on behalf of the equality of all men. Abolitionists in his time saw him as a living argument against slaveholders' insistence that slaves lacked the intelligence to function as independent citizens. Still, even many abolitionists found it hard to believe that such a great orator could have once been a slave.

Since then, over the ensuing 156 years, black people have excelled as writers, musicians, actors, CEOs, mayors, legislators, teachers, doctors, generals, scientists, athletes, Supreme Court justices and President of the U.S. Not only that, they have also have done the following:

  • Discovered how to store blood and make blood banks possible
  • Invented the filament that made Edison’s lightbulbs last longer
  • Introduced the first North American vaccination to smallpox
  • Helped launch the U.S. space program (see the film "Hidden Figures")
  • Invented the sanitary belt
  • Reached the North Pole just ahead of Admiral Peary
  • Established the settlement that became Chicago

Yet, clearly, old assumptions die hard.

In December, my church, Nativity Lutheran in Rockport, urged everyone to view the 18-minute video, "Race in America," and to participate in one of three discussions we hosted online afterward. Here’s the link, in case of public interest: youtube.com/watch?v=AGUwcs9qJXY.

It starts with the question: why, after all these years, are we still struggling with issues of race?

Honesty requires that we acknowledge what we know to be true: the continued poverty and substandard life experiences of so many Black Americans is primarily a result of government-sanctioned policy. Black history is the reason. It’s not lack of ability. Historically, black people have been kept down by law.

For example, after the emancipation in 1865, by 1900 every Southern state passed laws that mandated segregation. Even whites and blacks playing chess together was illegal.

The Jim Crow era jailed blacks for things like “vagrancy” (e.g., standing still on a sidewalk, not having a job) or making “insulting gestures,” laws that were applied only to black men.

Home ownership was discouraged through the 1960s when the Federal Housing Administration pronounced black neighborhoods “too risky” to lend to.

The realtors’ code of conduct dictated that a realtor who sold a house to a black family in a white neighborhood could lose his license.

After WWII, when 1.2 million blacks served in the military, the G.I. Bill insured low cost housing loans to returning soldiers, but largely left non-whites out. Of 67,000 mortgages in New York and New Jersey, less than 100 went to blacks. In Mississippi, out of 3200 mortgages, two went to blacks. Because homeownership has been the primary building block of household wealth, this greatly widened the prosperity gap for blacks hoping to rise into the middle class.

The list of injustices is long. We were not taught most of this in school. White America has been able to blame black poverty on lack of initiative or will or character. But the real reason so many of our fellow black citizens have been left behind is the policies and laws that have kept them from rising.

At the end of the "Race in America" video, the speaker asks, “what should we do?”

His answer?

“Care.”

We cannot change the past, but we can change the future. As citizens and people of conscience, we can pay attention. We can influence policies, we can speak up for the downtrodden. Isaiah 1:17 spells it out for us: “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed…”

In addition to the "Race in America" video, you might like to watch a couple movies that relate to this: "Lost Boundaries" (1949, filmed in Kittery) free on YouTube; "Fences" (2016) on Amazon Prime Video; and "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" (2020) on Netflix.

Any of them would be a good way to commemorate Black History month.

The more we know, the more effectively we can, as Martin Luther King said, bend the arc of the moral universe closer to justice.

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