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Black History is American History

Sherry-Cannon-photo1The word history means an account of what has happened in the life of a people, a country, or whatever. History is a known or recorded past. History is important and it’s important to know that African-American history is part of the fabric of American History.

Christopher Columbus arrived to these shores in 1492. However, Indigenous people lived in what is now called the United States thousands of years before his arrival. European colonist arrived here around 1600 and in 1776 the 13 English colonies declared their independence from England and called themselves the United States of America.

In 1526 the Portuguese completed the first transatlantic slave voyage from Africa to the America’s. An estimated 12 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantics from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Much of African-American history is not taught in school, and in many cases is being deliberately omitted or sanitized because of the cruelty of slavery. I’m reminded of a powerful quote attributed to George Santayana which says, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

Far too often those of us from African descent also failed to share our history, because of the self-imposed shame we have from slavery. Unfortunately, when you relegate your story for someone else to tell, too often the story becomes distorted.

I would like to start with where our history truly began. Genesis 1 is the account of creation, beginning with God creating Heaven and Earth and finishing with God proclaiming in verse 26, let us make people, in our own image, to be like ourselves. This is our history, all of our history, whether you’re Black, White, Brown, Native American, Asian, or Latino….

The history written in the bible tells of the people used by God i.e. Joseph, David, Esther and even Mary, the mother of Jesus. All of them were ordinary people, chosen by God to do extra-ordinary things. None of them were equipped to do any of the things they did, but for their faith and trust in God. And this was the same requirement needed for all those ordinary people, who did extra-ordinary things through slavery, the Jim Crow Era and even today as people of African descent continue to make history, up to and including President Barack Obama.

You don’t have to go looking to make history; most of the time history finds you. Take the case of 14 year old Emmett Till. Who on August 28, 1955 was murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman? Emmett was from Chicago, IL and was visiting his grandparents in Money, MS. He was beaten, one of his eyes gouged out, shot in the head and thrown in the river tied to a 75 pound motor from a cotton gin. Because of the color of his skin and the extreme racism at that time in this country, Emmett’s murderers were found not guilty by an all-white jury after only one hour of deliberation. However, Emmett’s death led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This was the first civil rights law passed in 82 years. So even though there was extreme racial discrimination in the country, good people with a sense of right existed and made changes on an unjust system.

During the Jim Crow Era, many children left their classrooms by the thousands and marched on downtown Birmingham, Alabama, which was known as one of the most racist cities in the south. These children didn’t choose this course of action, because they were trying to make history. It was forced upon them out of necessity. There were not enough Black adults prepared to be arrested, or willing to lose their job, if their employer discovered their involvement in any civil disobedience action. It is recorded that Dr. King told those young people back then in 1963, “What you do this day, will have impact on lives of children yet unborn”.

During these civil disobedience marches, Police Commissioner Bull Connor, brought fire hoses and attack dogs and turned them on the children. It caused headlines across the nation and the world. This Children’s Crusade turned the tide of the Civil Rights Movement. Had it not been for those young people going out in the streets of Birmingham, not just one time, but over and over again, being beaten, hosed with powerful fire department water hoses, thrown into jail, the Civil Rights Movement may have had a very different conclusion.

On a Sunday morning, September 15, 1963 the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. Over 200 members were in the building attending Sunday school. Although most of the congregation managed to get out, 5 young girls in a basement bathroom were not so fortunate. 14 years old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson along with 11 years old Denise McNair were killed, and ten year old Sarah Collins lost her right eye that day. These girls were not looking to make history, history found them!

Outrage over the death of the four innocent girls helped build support behind the struggle to end segregation. That support led to passing both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws gave people of color the ability to work in places they couldn’t before, eat in restaurants they were not allowed to sit in before, go to public parks they were not able to play in before, and vote in elections in city, state and federal elections, they were denied the right to before.

Then there was the case of little Ruby Bridges, born Sept 8, 1954 and the first Black child to attend an all-white public school in the American south. Ruby was born the year the Supreme Court passed the law desegregating all public schools in the country. Since 1896 states legally could keep Black and White children from attending the same schools.

While in kindergarten, Ruby was one of many African-American students in New Orleans, who was chosen to take a test to determine whether or not she could attend a white school. It is said that the test was written to be especially difficult so that students would have a hard time passing it. The idea was, if all the African-American children failed the test, the New Orleans schools might be able to stay segregated for a while longer.

Ruby was one of six children to pass the test. However, she was the only student to attend the William Frantz Elementary School near her home.

She was unable to start school in September with the rest of the children, because the state of Louisiana fought against the federal court to integrate their schools. On November 14, 1960, at the age of 6, Ruby was escorted by 4 Federal Marshalls with her mother to the school. She spent the first day of school in the principal office, because all the parents of the white students had kept their children home, and no classes were held.

The second day the same thing happened. Eventually, only one teacher in the school, a lady by the name of Barbara Henry agreed to teach Ruby. For a full year Ruby was Mrs. Henry’s only student. She was not allowed to go to the cafeteria or recess. Ruby sent the entire day, every day in Mrs. Henry’s classroom.

Charles Burke, one of the Federal Marshall’s that escorted Ruby, said she showed enormous courage, never cried but every day just marched along like a little soldier.

While some children became involved in the Civil Rights Movement because their parents were involved, others had to make a hard break and even sever family ties in order to do so.

Many of the young people active in the Civil Rights Movement were young white college students unable to reconcile the hypocrisy of the segregated churches, where they learned songs such as Jesus loves the little children, red, yellow, black or white-with the harsh reality of the segregated south.

Many of these college students actually sacrificed or postponed their formal education. What they gained was invaluable skills that shaped their worldview and future careers. Today they are the lawyers, professors, politicians, and community leaders still leading social justice movements.

Many of you reading this piece will have your life events recorded in history. Some, your path has already been ordained by God to do extra-ordinary things, for some the circumstances of life will hurl you into the history book, or others, you’ll just get sick and tired of some type of injustice and take a stand for right. Who knows what lies ahead for any of us? But what I do know is everyone has the potential to do great and marvelous things and have your story recorded in history forever!