LONSBERRY: History and Civil Rights

 I don’t believe in Black History Month.

               But I believe in history.

               And I believe we are better and stronger for our study of history – not as a fuel for further factionalism, but as an embrace of the human family.

               Our past is ours, it is owned collectively by us all. It is the foundation upon which we all stand. It can foolishly be used to enflame the divisions of today, or wisely employed to enrich our understandings of our nature.

               And of our shared and universal heritage.

               We are the family of man, and we have a family tree that we all share, regardless of which branch we may be descended from or which particular path through history our personal family might have taken.

               Which gets to my point.

               The best insights into history come from those who lived it, and each passing year takes with it eyewitnesses whose stories are not told and remembered, and our history and heritage are diminished as a result.

I have seen this in successive waves as the decades of my life have passed. As a young man, there were many alive who had fought in the First World War and who remembered the ravages of the Spanish flu. None of those people survive today. Likewise, when I was a boy, most of my teachers and neighbors – and a step-father – had fought in the Second World War. Today, those veterans are few and frail, and soon their day will end – and with it their ability to bear witness to what they saw.

This weighs on my mind as I think about the efforts in the 1950s and 60s to push back against anti-black laws and practices in the United States. It is hard to conceive in our day the notion of racially separated lunch counters, much less the myriad of even more hurtful bigotries forced upon black Americans.

It is difficult in modern America to imagine the racial oppression which existed in the lifetimes of people still with us. There are Americans alive today who experienced in their youth discrimination and hatred that we can’t comprehend.

But which we must hear from their mouths and hearts and lives.

Their color doesn’t matter. Our color doesn’t matter. This is about us.

This was done to us. And by us. And fought by us.

And our understanding of our history pleads for these eyewitnesses to speak and be heard – by us today and in our history tomorrow.

Before time takes from us the people of the 1950s and 60s, we have to hear what they thought as they read in the papers about the Freedom Riders, what they felt as they saw the hateful opposition to James Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss. What Thurgood Marshall’s confirmation meant, and Doctor King’s assassination.

We would have wanted to hear from a witness to Independence Hall or Gettysburg, and we want to hear from these Americans. What they saw, how they felt, what it meant, how they endured, what it taught them and what they want to teach us.

I don’t believe in adjectives before the word “history.” I just believe in history.

And as an American, the history of the civil rights movement is sacred to me. It is of wrong and right and freedom and morality. It is complex, and it is the stuff of binding, not dividing.

It includes people who are heroes to me, though they don’t look like me. Whether they walked to work in Montgomery or marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Some are gone, having passed to the eternities. But some are still here, in our homes and neighborhoods. They should be in our schools and before our microphones. Famous or obscure. They lived, they saw, and we must learn. And we must make a record. They owe it to history, and so do we.

An hour with a history book is worth a lifetime of sensitivity training. Knowing what happened, imagining walking where others have walked, feeling ever more a part of the rich fabric of the history of our country.

We are family, and history is the family story.

This is to remind us to learn that story, and to hearken to the elders who have seen things we can’t conceive.

               While we still can.

Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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