Black History Month A Time For Reflection

Legislative Column by Assemblyman Edward Ra (21st Assembly District)
February 3, 2011

A man sits alone in a prison cell, writing. His phone privileges denied while he remains in solitary confinement, the man writes letters to protest this deprivation. He is there because he has revealed, in stark and immediate terms, the feebleness of a system dedicated to withholding equal opportunity and justice from its citizens. For the crime of civil disobedience, including serving as the co-organizer of a massive lunch counter sit-in campaign and economic boycott, the imprisoned man has been labeled an outside agitator. But, as he explains in one note composed on April 16, 1963, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” As your new representative from the 21st Assembly District, I consider my public service a solemn responsibility to the families, taxpayers, small-business owners, neighbors, and moms and dads who have entrusted me. Like Dr. King, I believe that small acts of kindness can lead us closer to what his Southern Christian Leadership Conference dubbed the “beloved community.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was sent to the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama following his arrest in the massive non-violent demonstrations that disrupted the economic climate of the city’s downtown. Along with Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King, then-president of the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, coordinated with Birmingham’s Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to protest the rash of threats and acts of outright vigilantism perpetuated against Birmingham’s segregated black population.

Following his imprisonment, King was alerted to a local newspaper’s letter to the editor from clergy members condemning his civil disobedience and that of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and calling on the South’s oppressed black minority to pursue the gradual erasure of Jim Crow through the courts. His April 16, 1963 letter, included in a book titled “Why We Can’t Wait” that became the philosophical text of the United States civil rights movement, was written partly as a response to this call for patience in the face of widespread racial injustice. “Letter” is one of countless examples of Dr. King acting, thinking, and writing honorably as others work feverishly to dishonor and discredit him. The “Outsider” was about to become the public face of the most successful social alliance for equal opportunity and political rights in postwar America.

February is Black History Month, an opportunity to celebrate achievements by African- Americans and reflect on the courage of those, like Dr. King, who have made the conditions for success possible. Begun as a weeklong celebration in February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and later expanded, Black History Month was officially recognized first by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Each successive president has celebrated Black History Month by designating a specific theme or illuminating a specific area of historical importance in the lives of African-Americans.

In 2010, that theme dealt with blacks and economic empowerment. This year, “African- Americans and the Civil War” will provide the backdrop for February’s educational and cultural activities. It is meant to highlight the powerful contributions of courageous African-Americans – as soldiers, spies, nurses, and more – during the Civil War era. The bravery demonstrated by slaves and free men alike in the face of a long and bloody conflict reminds us of the determination shown a century later during the fight for civil rights and equal treatment under the law led by Martin Luther King and others.

African-Americans have contributed mightily to the fabric of national life. In politics, business, the arts, and sports, Black History Month reminds us of the indispensable role played by these Americans. Long Island also has produced its share of African-American success stories, with more certain to follow in the future. Kenneth Chenault, CEO of American Express, grew up in the region and was educated in Garden City. Chenault today is one of four African-American heads of a Fortune 500 company and runs one of the most successful credit card firms in the world. Black entrepreneurs continue to make significant contributions to the Empire State’s economy by creating jobs and building wealth.

Black History Month 2011 is here, and as your assemblyman, I am proud to spotlight the positive contributions African-Americans continue to make locally as well as nationwide. Dr. King’s message of resilience in the face of desperation and the black infantryman’s experiences in the Civil War remind us that bravery in overcoming odds has been an essential part of the black experience in the United States. Let’s celebrate that courageous past and look toward a bright future of accomplishment together.