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Black history is helpful history

Turning away from past won't help the future.
Black history is helpful history
By Stebbins Jefferson, Palm Beach Post Columnist
Saturday, February 21, 2004

We are approaching the end of another Black History Month. For some of us, this annual celebration is a time of much-needed cultural enlightenment. For others, it is a cultural ordeal to be endured grudgingly. Whatever the perception, it can be viewed as a litmus test of whether one's goal is acceptance or mere tolerance of African-Americans.

In 1926, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson organized the first "Black History Week," the distinguished black scholar intended no negative indictment of those who reject the celebration. Rather, he wanted to give his people something to look backward to with pride and forward to with hope. After working in coal mines to help support eight younger siblings, the Virginia native began high school at age 20. He would go on to earn a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in 1908 and a doctorate in history from Harvard four years later.

Though he had earned degrees from two of America's most prestigious universities, Dr. Woodson was convinced that his education was far from complete because he had not been required to study any significant black history. Understanding that knowledge of one's history is worth-affirming, he devoted the rest of his life to researching and educating others "not about Negro history but about the Negro in history." In 1976, as a part of the nation's bicentennial, President Ford expanded Dr. Woodson's week to Black History Month.

Too many Americans -- black and white -- prefer to believe that only here and now matter, that nothing is to be gained by reflecting on our ancestors' moral lapses. Social myopia, however, thwarts efforts to use the lessons of the past to create a better future.

Just as we delight in learning about every historic black "first" and other achievements, we also need to remind ourselves how far this country has come to granting full citizenship to all of its people. For that reason during this Black History Month, I was grateful when a neighbor alerted me to the PBS documentary on Emmett Till.

You will recall that he was the 14-year-old boy who left Chicago during the summer of 1955 to vacation with his mother's relatives in rural Mississippi. White men took him from his grandfather's home in the middle of the night, beat him beyond recognition, shot him and weighted down his body with a cotton gin fan before dumping him in a nearby river. His alleged crime was whistling at the wife of one of the men in the local store.

Two of the men who abducted the boy were arrested, tried and found not guilty. In justifying the acquittal, jurors claimed that no proof existed to show that the disfigured body found in the river was the boy taken from his grandfather's home. Yet Emmett's mother identified his body by the signet ring she had given him before he left Chicago for Mississippi. The ring was the only item the Army returned to her after her husband died in Europe. Although the two acquitted men within a year sold their story to Look magazine, describing in detail how they had murdered the young boy, no further action was taken against them.

The Emmett Till story is the kind of black history that many who reject the annual celebration of black history abhor. They can see no merit in reviewing a decades-old atrocity committed by long-dead racists. But acknowledging this black history is important to American history. It is equivalent to publicly acknowledging an addiction to illegal substances in order to embrace sobriety. To dismiss our ugly history as irrelevant is to permit it to continue shaping our lives, perhaps in more covert ways, but with equally sinister consequences.

The Till case has much to teach us about how our justice system works today. It shows why jury nullification based on the racial identities of the defendants and the jurors continues to be a justifiable concern. It shows how we have become conditioned to value each others' lives based on color, whether the worth to be assessed is of civilians here at home or servicemen abroad. It shows how a climate of racial animosity can cancel humane logic.

Black History Month challenges all of us to examine all of our common past, not to assign blame but to affirm that through mutual respect, we can make our democracy better.

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