Black history: an American epic

BTL Staff
By | 2003-05-02T09:00:00-04:00 May 2nd, 2003|Uncategorized|

Black History month is a time to look back at our nation’s history. It is a tough and painful road – one that, if understood well, gives us an honest perspective on our country, our neighbors, our LGBT movement and a vision for a possible future.
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 officially freed the slaves, and after the end of the Civil War, Black Americans exercised their right to vote in droves. Whites in the south were enraged when Blacks won seats in their state and federal legislatures, and for the next 80 years Blacks were targeted in a vicious guerilla war led by the Ku Klux Klan and other segregationist groups. Blacks who had gained their right to vote by law, lost it at the end of a gun, and the numbers of black elected officials plummeted to near zero by the turn of the 20th Century.
In 1875, Congress passed a sweeping Civil Rights Bill that granted Blacks new freedoms and responsibilities. The backlash was swift and violent. Progressive politicians – white and black – were run out of the south, branded as self-serving “carpetbaggers.” Racism in the north was usually less bloody, but no less exclusionary.
The U.S. Supreme Court was no friend of the newly freed black man either. In 1883, the Court invalidated key sections of the 1875 Civil Rights Act. In his majority opinion, Justice Joseph P. Bradley wrote, “Freedmen should no longer be considered the special favorites of the law,” providing an eerie echo of the “special rights” arguments used today against LGBT people and other minorities. And in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court disgraced itself with its decision in Plesy v. Ferguson that legalized the Jim Crow era, “separate but equal” laws.
It took another 60 years, until 1954, for the Supreme Court to correct Plesy in their decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But despite court ordered integration in all public schools, the resistance was fierce. Black students were harassed and beaten, and white flight decimated urban school systems and the urban economies. Today, our public schools are more segregated than they were in 1970, a sad testament to the persistent power of prejudice.
The first Black man named to the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, died 12 years ago last month. He fought for integration, and believed that our nation’s greatness is grounded in our Constitution’s commitment to the rights of the individual. He argued that if individuals learned to share space with each other, then prejudice would eventually dissipate. He died a discouraged and angry man, frustrated that the country was turning away from civil rights he had fought for as an attorney and a judge. He was appalled that his seat on the Supreme Court was filled by Clarence Thomas, a Black man that he considered intellectually and morally unfit for the Court.
But Marshall believed in the American Dream, even though it is a dream yet unfulfilled for so many American citizens. In 1992, in one of his last public appearances, he shared this poem written by Langston Hughes:
O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME –
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose flow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again…
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet, I swear this oath –
America will be!
The LGBT movement has much to learn from the continuing struggle of Black Americans. Perhaps the greatest lesson is to remain full of hope, promise and belief that America can be something great. Black Americans have kept the faith for centuries despite horrendous adversity. It is up to all of us who are considered outside the American Dream to not give up, but to continue the struggle for justice and equality.
It is the American way.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 25th anniversary.