It’s Black History Month and, as always, we acknowledge those notables who came before us, inspired us, and paved the way.
But that said, this year has historical implications well beyond our favorite month of the year. For 2011 is also the 150th anniversary of a not-so-civil American conflict known as the Civil War, started in 1861, as the South pushed to break away from the Union.
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We’ve often been told or, at least, been led to believe the issue of slavery was the cause of the American Civil War… not quite true. Rather, it was a key issue through which the competing political and economic power dynamics of North and South could be viewed, especially given the tug-of-war over whether new states would be admitted to the Union as “Free” states or “Slave” states, thus giving more power to one faction or the other.
In February of 1861, mere months before the first shots were fired, an outspoken individual concerned with the North’s lack of action in curbing the South’s competing interests, penned these fiery words:
“In viewing the alleged causes of the present perilous and dilapidated condition of the Federal Union, and the various plans by which it is proposed to set that Union in safety, all manly sensibility is shocked, and all human patience breaks down in disgust and indignation at the spectacle. The attitude of the Northern people in this crisis will crimson the cheeks of their children’s children with shame. As between the North and the South, history will record the fact, that the latter (the South), though engaged in a villainous and wicked cause, acted bravely, and displayed a manly spirit, while the former (the North), with the best of causes and pledged to it in open daylight before millions of their countrymen, acted the part of miserable cowards, insensible alike to the requirements of self-respect or duty.”
The man who uttered these bold, unapologetic words was none other than a formerly enslaved African by the name of Frederick Douglass, whose birthday we celebrate this week. His speech was entitled The Union and How To Save It.
Douglass was definitely, as they say, “spittin’ fire” as he took the North to task prior to the war for not “manning up.” He was not one to hold his tongue in front of anyone, be it the presidents he passionately pushed to end slavery and give black people the vote, or the slave master he literally whooped in a fight while still enslaved on a Maryland farm.
Douglass’ ‘fire’ reminds us of another incredible, outspoken and fiercely proud brother whose untimely passing, ironically, we also mark this month. Next week is the 46th anniversary of the assassination of the incomparable Malcolm X.
Like Douglass, Malcolm was known to call a whole lotta folks “cowards,” both black and white.
But the irony doesn’t stop there. There is yet another anniversary we acknowledge this week. Two years ago, the newly-appointed Attorney General of the United States spat some fire of his own when he famously labeled the United States a “nation of cowards” when dealing with the troubling issue of race.
Apparently, as was the case with African American ‘top-cop’ Eric Holder, this rich tradition in our community of ‘speaking truth to power’ doesn’t end even when some of us are already in power.
So this Black History Month, we should acknowledge such truth-speakers and spend some time reading and discussing the words of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X along with the insights of Sojourner Truth, David Walker, Marcus Garvey, Ida B. Wells and the many others who fearlessly spoke out on America’s racial shortcomings.
Stephanie Robinson is President and CEO of The Jamestown Project, a national think tank focused on democracy. She is an author, a Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Law School and former Chief Counsel to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Stephanie reaches 8 to 10 million listeners each week as political commentator for the popular radio venue, The Tom Joyner Morning Show. Visit her online at www.StephanieRobinsonSpeaks.com.