Michael Smith: Why Black History Month?

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Each year the question is asked: Why does Black History Month occur in February? The relevance of February goes back to 1926, when Dr. Carter G. Woodson first established “Negro History Week” during the second week of February. And why that week? Because it encompasses the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, both men being great symbols of freedom.

However, Woodson never confined Negro history to a week. His life’s work and mission represent a living testimony to the year-round and year-after-year study of African American history.

The genius of Woodson could be seen in his prolific scholarship and in his mentorship of younger scholars. His genius could also be seen in innovative popular programming such as Negro History Week, for African-Americans of all ages and all walks of life. The week provided a special time for us to collectively celebrate our racial pride as well as collectively assess white American’s commitment to its professed ideals of freedom.

I recall as a student attending a segregated public elementary and secondary schools in Mississippi my Black teachers would engage their students in an array of festivities-plays, pageants, reciting of speeches, essay contests, and other events. We can’t forget during the mid-1960 ’s and especially when college students demanded courses on African Americans and led protests demanding Black studies Departments. There were calls for extending Negro History week into a monthlong celebration from such groups as the Pan-American/Pan-African Association in Washington DC and students at Kent State University in Ohio, and from local communities throughout America.

In the belief that it was important for our nation to set aside the month of February in official observance of African Americans’ contributions to the history of the United States and world. The first official observance came in February 1976, from President Gerald Ford whose words established Black History Month in eloquent homage to Woodson. He proclaimed: “IN THE Bicentennial year of our Independence, we can review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life…”

Ten years later in 1986, which was also the first year of the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday, the U.S. Congress, in a joint resolution of the House and Senate, designated the month of February as National Black History Month. The resolution authorized and requested President Ronald Reagan to issue a proclamation in observance. In 1986, the Presidential Proclamation (5443) noted that “the foremost purpose of Black History Month is to make ALL Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity.”

Thus, let us think of Black History Month the way nation honors its greatest moments and greatest people. Let us appreciate Black History Month in a similar way – as when our government sets aside a month or day, thereby giving it a special meaning for all Americans. No one should think that Black History is confined to the month of February, when evidence to the contrary appears everywhere and in every month. Our responsibility as citizens is to address the inequalities and injustices than linger, and we must secure our birthright freedoms for all people. As we mark the 47th year of National African American History Month, let us reflect on the sacrifices and contributions made by generations of African Americans, and let us resolve to continue our march toward a day when every person knows the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Black History Month is not a token. It is a special tribute – a time of acknowledgement, of reflection, and inspiration – that comes to life in real and ongoing activities throughout the year. I call upon public officials, educators, librarians and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.

Michael Smith is president and CEO of the Northern Nevada Cultural Foundation.


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