Mark E. McCormick: Can’t separate black history, U.S. history

02/24/2013 12:00 AM

02/22/2013 7:05 PM

Many of us tolerate Black History Month’s historical apartheid out of resignation that society would yield only the attention of this shortest month to the subject.

But this perspective denies people of other races more accurate and more robust renditions of American history, as well as their role in it.

Black history and American history simply can’t exist on parallel tracks. They must merge as they have in reality because neither occurred in isolation. It was about all of us.

“The freedom movement set loose the widest liberation in human history,” said Taylor Branch, one of the nation’s pre-eminent civil rights scholars, in a recent address on C-SPAN.

Branch quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as saying that once African-Americans freed themselves, it would free the white South. As the limited liberation spread, the Milwaukee Braves relocated to Atlanta, becoming the South’s first professional sports franchise.

Civil rights movement momentum led to the repeal of the National Origins Act, which reserved 80 percent of legal immigration for England, Ireland and Germany.

“Never again will the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege shadow the gate of freedom,” President Johnson said.

And what is Title IX, passed in the colorful sunset of the movement, but civil rights for girls and young women?

The decades of subjugation amounted to what Branch called “a grand circle of fear” that “imprisoned all of us.”

Segregated history deprives wide swaths of society their rightful place in that historic movement.

We’ve abandoned, for example, James Reeb, the white Universalist Unitarian minister from Wichita who died from injuries sustained during the “Bloody Sunday” march to Selma, on an island of willful amnesia.

Also there is Blossom Randall. The white Lawrence housewife penned a then-scandalous children’s book about her son’s friendship with a black child. Randall wrote her book before the Brown decision, before Emmett Till’s murder and before the Montgomery bus boycott.

These stories and others should not be specialty information but should populate mainstream textbooks. Our failure to teach history, Branch said, undermines our efforts to teach citizenship.

Randall Robinson, an activist trained at Harvard Law School, said: “The notion of Black History Month is ludicrous on its face.… Black History Month is tantamount to a confession that American history is a lie and not wholly told.”

Black history, he said, has been reduced to slavery, inventors and civil rights.

There’s no worse crime you can commit against a people, Robinson said, “than to strip them of the story of themselves.”

He was referring to African-Americans in that statement, but that clearly applies to any of us of any race who call ourselves Americans.

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