Eric Arnesen: The continuing relevance of black history





[Eric Arnesen is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of "Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality."]

A week ago—just 12 days after the historic inauguration of Barack Obama—the country began its annual commemoration of Black History Month. Typically, the month is marked by specific public rituals: Public television airs documentaries on the African-American experience; schoolchildren read books about black heroes and inventors; newspapers run op-eds on how far we've come or how far we have yet to travel. And, invariably, snippets of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech fill the airwaves in tributes of remembrance. n Is this year different? What new spin does the election of the nation's first African-American president put on the history of racial inequality and progress? Do we even need a Black History Month?

Some conservative commentators will likely insist that we have entered a post-racial America, that Obama's election marks the culmination of a long struggle and the realization of the American promise.

Various liberal and leftist critics will charge that Obama's election changes little, that opponents of racial progress will use the fact of a black "first" to validate their claims that "race is over" and we'd all be better off simply moving on.

Both positions—left and right—underscore not the irrelevance of Black History Month but its importance. Or, rather, the importance of a Black History Month that puts...well, history first.

Perhaps the American public can be forgiven its ignorance of so much American history when their political leaders put their own ignorance on display so often.

Which of the following applies to the initially negative reaction to the appointment of veteran African-American politico Roland Burris to Illinois' vacant U.S. Senate seat by the scandal-plagued Gov. Rod Blagojevich?

A. A supporter implored the public not to "hang or lynch" Burris for Blagojevich's alleged sins.

B. The reaction of U.S. Senate Democrats resembled that of white Arkansas government officials "standing in the doorway of schoolchildren" to block the integration of Little Rock High School.

C. Democratic Senate leaders were compared to those iconic racists George Wallace and "Bull" Connor.

D. The turning away of Burris from the U.S. Senate conjured up images of "dogs being sicced on children in Birmingham" in 1963.

E. All of the above.

If you answered "e," you have unfortunately been subjected to former Black Panther-turned-Chicago Congressman Bobby Rush's recent tutorials on civil rights history and contemporary politics. In press conferences and on talk shows, Rush has advanced historical analogies that are downright embarrassing and inexcusable. Take just one example—the Little Rock integration crisis in 1957. Elected officials refused to abide by the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education declaring school segregation unconstitutional; Gov. Orval Faubus ordered the state's National Guard to prevent black students from entering Central High. Whites rioted in the streets. President Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and dispatched the army's 101st Airborne Division to restore order and protect the nine black students seeking to attend the school. "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts," he declared.

The following year, the school board closed the city's high schools altogether to prevent integration.

Nothing—absolutely nothing—in this story resembles what transpired in Washington when Roland Burris first showed up on Capitol Hill....

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network