BY EMILY O'CONNOR, GRACE ATTENDER
Since 1976, every president in the United States has declared February to be “Black History Month.” This means since my birth, there have been 22 months specifically assigned to celebrate, recognize, and learn about black history in our country. And yet, it wasn’t until last year that I learned anything about black history in this country. I took an African American Literature class in college that centered around black history post-Civil War, and I realized the depth of black history in the United States. Honestly, I was ashamed and embarrassed for never having heard of the people, eras, and movements that run deep in our country’s veins and center around racial equality. It was like finding out there was a whole other country within my own. Upon reflection, I realized that in school, we never read a book by an author of color other than The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which is a jarring introduction to African American Literature.
Growing up, I remember watching black and white scenes of the Montgomery bus boycotts, people sitting at diner counters while others pour drinks over their heads, and protestors being hosed down in the streets. I learned about Emmett Till, a young boy who was lynched because he was accused of whistling at a white woman. It was horrifying to say the least, but then the hero steps into the storyline – Martin Luther King Jr. We would listen as his booming voice bellowed the “I Have a Dream” speech in front of Abraham Lincoln, with visions of little black boys and little black girls joining hands with little white boys and little white girls as brothers and sisters. It was a beautiful vision, and for all I knew, it ended racism in America right there in the August heat of 1963, because I never went farther than the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a titan of racial reconciliation in the United States. He was a courageous freedom fighter, entering brutal conflict with the principle of nonviolence. He was a brilliant leader, and he held our systems accountable for the injustices they perpetuated against some of our most vulnerable citizens. However, Martin Luther King Jr. was not the end of black history in America, and I think sometimes, it’s easy for me to think he was. But we are doing Dr. King, and our nation’s rich history of freedom fighters, a disservice if we end the discussion with him.
Black History month is not just something to be celebrated in February, so let’s educate ourselves about other people who fought for racial equality, both before and after Dr. King. (This list is by no means extensive, but it includes several other titans of racial reconciliation with which you might not be as familiar.)
W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1963 – Du Bois was a cofounder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and acted as the editor of its magazine, The Crisis. He was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University. He published the first case study on an African American community, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. He is best known for his journalism and his fight to give all African Americans access to education.
Zora Neale Hurston, 1891-1960 – Hurston is best known for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She traveled the South, collecting stories and folklore about southern, black culture that she compiled in her book Mules and Men. Her writing was also instrumental during the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes, 1902-1967 – Hughes is best known for his artistic contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote short stories, plays, novels, and poetry that reflected the black experience of both love and suffering during the 1920s. Most of his art centered around the jazz influence of the time.
Medgar Evers, 1925-1963 – Evers was a U.S. army veteran who fought World War II, and he was honorably discharged in 1946. He moved to Mississippi with his wife and started volunteering for the NAACP. Evers quit his job to work full-time for the NAACP, organizing voter registration efforts, demonstrations, boycotts of white-owned companies, and investigating the death of Emmett Till. Evers was shot and killed in the driveway of his home.
James Baldwin, 1924-1987 – Baldwin is known as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, specifically for his novels and essays depicting the black experience in America. Baldwin was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1963. In 2016, a documentary about Baldwin’s life called “I Am Not Your Negro” was nominated for an Academy Award.
Angela Davis, 1944 – Davis is best known as a civil rights activist and educator at UCLA. Throughout her life, Davis was part of several racial justice groups. She advocates for gender equality and prison reform, and is best known for her book Women, Race & Class.
Did any of these civil rights activists pique your interest? Check out books and essays written by or about them!
Community events for Black History Month