Black History Month: Seeing America Clearly

It is one thing for me, a white person, to write about Black History, but I do so without having the personal experience of growing up Black, not having the true context of what it meant to grow up and live in a world where you were often mistreated and abused, where opportunities afforded to others did not apply to you simply because of the colour of your skin.  So, when I came upon one writer’s personal essay, I was deeply moved, as I believe you will be.  The following essay was published Sunday in the New York Times by Esau McCaulley, an author and a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

Black History Month Is About Seeing America Clearly

A woman who was born into enslavement in Alabama.Credit…Jack Delano/Getty Images

Feb. 20, 2022

By Esau McCaulley

Contributing Opinion Writer

Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who did the kinds of jobs featured at career fairs or depicted on television shows. I had never met a Black doctor, lawyer, professor or scientist. Where does a young Black man go when looking for hope? My teachers, overworked as they were, pointed me toward Black luminaries from the past.

The first Black History Month project I recall was about George Washington Carver. I was enthralled with the idea that the early 20th-century agricultural scientist, born into slavery, came up with hundreds of uses for peanuts. By the time Black History Month rolled into full swing, my ode to the master of peanuts sat alongside posters lauding the accomplishments of such stalwarts as Martin Luther King Jr. (he always inspired multiple posters), Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Sojourner Truth.

Black history, in this frame, is the story of exemplars. We learn about the first Black surgeon, Supreme Court justice or astronaut. This version of Black history endeavors to show Black capability and challenge stereotypes. The lesson is clear: If this Black person from history overcame racism, so could we. With enough grit, determination and patience, we too could go to space or invent hundreds of uses for a common crop.

These exemplars were helpful. But the exercise also left me with a feeling that there was a long list of things Black people had never done, and my job was to find one of those things and check it off the list. Then we could stand before the world and say: We have done all the things. Can we have justice now?

This exemplars-based approach to Black history also produced an unintentional consequence. It gave those outside our community license to use Black accomplishment against us. They told us that we needed more exceptional Black people, instead of questioning a society that required such greatness of us. Our very victories were transfigured into condemnations of those still languishing.

I was exposed to a second form of Black History Month when I got older: Black history as corrective. In this version, we learned about Black achievement that had been erased from the historical record. It points us to the African American female mathematicians involved in the space race, as recounted fictionally in the film “Hidden Figures” or the Tuskegee Airmen, whose contributions during World War II were long underappreciated. This is important. One reason that we are still chasing “firsts” is because too many of our accomplishments have been stolen from us. But the problem is that this way of teaching history is about amending a story, instead of telling a more truthful one.

It was not until I got to college that I began to see African American history for what it truly is. It is not a series of heroics or forgotten contributions. It is a different telling of the American story altogether.

What happens when we do not begin with the Mayflower but the slave ship, and tell American history from that perspective? The explicit aim of The Times’s 1619 Project was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” This powerful, challenging idea led to a still-raging debate about racism in America that is playing out in school boards and local elections all over the country, with certain books and ideas being ruled out of bounds.

Americans have not been taught enough about anti-Black racism in our past and present. This, to my mind, is beyond dispute. We are poorer as a nation for these omissions. It is also true that scholars of good will can disagree when making sense of the lives of figures long dead. People are complex, and getting at the complexity is no small thing. Education should be a place where such matters are debated openly.

But endless discussions about the intent of the founding fathers miss a fundamental point. History is not merely the study of intent; it encompasses effect. Whether or not every founding father intended to create a government that sanctioned slavocracy, and later Jim Crow, those were the outcomes. To limit the question to the intent at the expense of the experience of the enslaved and their descendants is to prioritize white American intentions or ideals over Black bodies, a mistake our Republic has made over and over.

What cannot be doubted is that for African peoples brought to this land against our will, slavery and anti-Black racism are defining characteristics of our American experience. This is why Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech draws upon the Declaration of Independence in its opening movement. He highlighted the fact that this declaration had little purchase in the lives of Black folks:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

Black history, then, should be a challenge to our Republic and its core narrative. Instead of quibbling with this detail or that, it must raise a fundamental question about the quality of life Black people have been allowed to experience. If we are indeed a part of this nation, then our lives and experiences have a claim on our national narrative. African American history forces us to view the Black experience of injustice not as the interruption of or caveat to an otherwise grand narrative, but as a compelling story in its own right.

Would this leave us with only a tale of woe? No. There is a dark beauty to the American story. The beauty is not in our innocence. We have been party to too much death and terror for that. African American history requires the recasting of our central figures, where those on the sidelines are brought to the forefront. The enslaved must be allowed to unbend their backs and step into the light and claim the glory due to them. Washington and Lincoln must give way to Truth and Douglass as American marvels.

What makes America a wonder is that this is the land upon which my ancestors, despite the odds, fought for and often made a life for themselves. We are great because this land housed the poetry of Phillis Wheatley and Maya Angelou, the advocacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, the urgency of Nina Simone’s music, and the faith-inspired demand for change in Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons.

This way of telling the story allows us to speak of American ideals even if the norm is failure rather than accomplishment. It allows our history to chronicle progress without diminishing the suffering necessary to bring it about. This means, too, that to tell the American story well the contributions of us Black folks cannot be limited to February.

Black history offers America a chance to see itself both as what we have failed to become and as we wish ourselves to be. It is not to inspire hate for one race or to foment division. America seeing itself clearly is the first step toward owning and then learning from its mistakes. The second step is the long journey to become that which we hope to be: a more perfect — and just — union.

The Week’s Best Cartoons 2/19

Once again, TokyoSand has scoured the ‘net and come up with some very apt cartoons that tell in few or no words what was on our minds and in our news this past week.  Thank you, TS, for all your hard work in many areas!

While there was plenty of drama here at home, I must admit I was more preoccupied by what was happening overseas. It appears our cartoonists were, too. Here At Home By Matt Davies By Clay Bennett By Mike Luckovich By Ann Telnaes By Clay Jones By Clay Bennett By Marc Murphy By…

See all the ‘toons at TokyoSand’s Political Charge!

Black History Month — Mississippi Murders

Mississippi has almost certainly been the home to more Civil Rights-related murders than any other state in this nation.  One that comes immediately to the minds of most people are the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by members of the KKK, some of whom, ironically, were also members of law enforcement in June 1964.  The three were civil rights workers who had been working with the Freedom Summer campaign by attempting to register African Americans in Mississippi to vote and it was for that reason they were murdered.

Their story, as most of you know, was immortalized in the film Mississippi Burning (1988), starring Willem Dafoe and Gene Hackman, as well as numerous other books and documentaries.  Nine men, including Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence A. Rainey, were later identified as parties to the conspiracy to murder Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

In 1967, more than three years after the murders, seven men — Cecil Price, Klan Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers, Alton Wayne Roberts, Jimmy Snowden, Billy Wayne Posey, Horace Barnette, and Jimmy Arledge – were tried on charges related to the murders, but none were charged with the actual murders and none served sentences longer than six years.  Mississippi, folks, home of the KKK, of white supremacy.  The white judge in the trial was a known opponent of the Civil Rights Movement; the jury was all-white, and one juror even said later that she “could never convict a preacher”.

In 2005, after investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell1 for the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger unearthed new witnesses and evidence, a new trial took place, this one for three counts of murder against Edgar Ray Killen, the man who had masterminded the plot to murder Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner.  He was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to three consecutive 20 year sentences.  He died in prison on January 11, 2018, six days before his 93rd birthday.  The others, including those who actually pulled the trigger, remained free after serving their short sentences, allowed to walk on the same sidewalks as everyone else.

Throughout those years, white supremacy still reigned in Mississippi and to some extent still does today.  Say what you will, a leopard does not change its spots and people with prejudices and hatred in their hearts pass those prejudices on to the next generation and so it becomes an endless chain, a vicious circle.

Though there have been many high-profile murders of Black people in Mississippi, the other most well-remembered is that of Medgar Evers, a civil rights worker with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) who was shot and killed right outside his front door on the night of June 12, 1963.  His killer was a known white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith.

De La Beckwith was quickly arrested after his gun with his fingerprints was discovered to have been the murder weapon, but two trials in 1964 ended in hung juries and De La Beckwith walked free.  Two law enforcement officers lied and said they had seen Beckwith at a service station some 90 miles away around the time of the murder, but their story was never credible.  Still, an all-white, all-male jury couldn’t find their way clear to convict a blatant killer.

An interesting aside:  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Mr. Evers’ funeral and was stopped by police at the funeral.  I’ve been unable to find out why, but we can logically deduce it was because of the colour of his skin and his efforts to end the segregation that was so prevalent in Mississippi.

The same investigative reporter, Jerry Mitchell1, who delved deeper into the killings of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner did some similar digging into the Evers murder and eventually discovered new witnesses and enough new evidence to open a new investigation that led to a new trial of De La Beckwith in 1994.  It came out then that De La Beckwith had actually bragged about killing Evers, whom he had referred to as a “chicken-stealing dog.”  In this third and final trial, De La Beckwith was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison where he died in 2001 at the age of 80.

These are but a couple of the many brutal murders that have taken place in Mississippi for no other reason that the victim was Black.  Racial hatred … there is no room for it in this country, and yet it persists in this, the 21st century.  After all these thousands of years that humans have inhabited planet Earth, wouldn’t you think humans would have learned that there is no reason to believe that a person with lighter skin is somehow better, has more value, than a person with darker skin?  My friend Brosephus stated at the beginning of Black History Month that “Black History is American History” … and we know he’s right, but it seems like there are a hell of a lot of people who didn’t get that memo!

Inflation, a volatile situation on the Ukraine border, a deadly pandemic that has, as of this moment, taken millions of lives, at least 953,000 in the U.S. alone, a stagnant worker’s wage, a climate crisis … there are so many things we need to be concerned about, need to find solutions for, but for some people bigotry and hatred are the number one priority.  I used to think humans could do better if only we tried, but in light of events of the past 7 or so years, I’m not so sure anymore.

1 Race Against Time:  A Reporter Reopens The Unsolved Murder Cases Of The Civil Rights Era, Jerry Mitchell, Simon & Schuster, February 4, 2020

Black History Month: A Very Noble Man … Mr. Dabney Montgomery

In today’s environment, it would be easy to focus during Black History Month on the wrongs that have been done throughout our history and continue even today against Black Americans.  Certainly it is important to bring those stories to light, especially these days when some are trying to hide those parts of the nation’s history.  But to limit my posts to only those would be wrong, for there are so many true heroes throughout our history who deserve to be recognized, to be noted.  I first wrote this post on September 6th 2016, three days after the death of Mr. Dabney Montgomery, but last night I read it again and I think Mr. Montgomery deserves another spotlight, another round of applause.  So, without further ado, please allow me to tell you about Mr. Dabney Montgomery …


The Tuskegee Airmen was a group of African-American military fighter and bomber pilots, as well as navigators, bombardiers, mechanics, instructors, crew chiefs, nurses, cooks and other support personnel, who fought in World War II. Officially, they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces. Mr. Montgomery was a member of this group, serving as a ground crewman until the end of the war in 1945.

When he returned to his home in Selma, Alabama, after the war, Jim Crow laws and segregation were still the law of the land in the south.  Having just been honourably discharged, Mr. Montgomery attempted to board a train in Atlanta to return home to his family. “Before I could get in, a white officer threw up his hand. ‘You can’t come in this door, boy, you got to go around the back.’ “ After returning home, Mr. Montgomery went to the courthouse in Selma to register to vote in the next election, but was told by a clerk that he would need the signatures of three white men before he would be allowed to register.  His father, Dred, a fireman for Southern Railroad, knew three white men who were willing to sign.  But when Mr. Montgomery returned to the courthouse with the signatures, yet another hurdle had been put in his way … he was told he must own at least $1,000 worth of property.  He did not own property, and thus was denied the right to vote. Obviously not much had changed in the south during his time of service to his country.

Mr. Montgomery attended Livingstone College in North Carolina on the GI Bill and graduated with a degree in religious education in 1949. A man of many interests and talents, Mr. Montgomery soon ended up in Boston, where he studied dance at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and later in New York at the New York City Metropolitan Opera Dance School!  Sadly, an injury soon ended his dance career, and in 1955 he went to work for the City of New York, first as a Social Service Investigator in the Department of Social Services and later for the Housing Authority.

Then one day …

“I was sitting at home in New York City and I saw that attack on people in Selma on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They gassed them and beat them with sticks — the sheriff, the officials in their uniforms, because they was [sic] marching to the governor’s office to vote.

“And I saw them knocked down, and I saw the gas in the air, and I was sitting here — this is happening in my hometown, Selma! I said, ‘I’m going and get[ting] a taste of that gas.’

“I went to my director and said, ‘I’ve got to go home. … I’m going home to take part in that movement.’ “

dabney-montgomery-2.pngThe date was Sunday, 07 March 1965, and the event Mr. Montgomery saw on television would become known across the nation as “Bloody Sunday”.  The previous year, 1964, the Voter’s Rights Act was passed, but African-Americans were still meeting with resistance when attempting to register to vote, and as a result, only 2% had been able to register.  Dr. Martin Luther King was working with the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register black voters.  There was much resistance in Selma, and on February 17, protester Jimmy Lee Jackson was fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper.  In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for March 7. Six hundred marchers assembled in Selma that Sunday, and led by John Lewis and other SNCC and SCLC activists, planned to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot teargas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with billy clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people.

Mr. Montgomery had been active in the Civil Rights movement before, participating in the 1963 March on Washington, but when he returned to Selma, he jumped on the bandwagon with determination to make things better, to do whatever he could to help bring about an end to racial segregation. Within days of arriving in Selma, Mr. Montgomery connected with Dr. King, and by the beginning of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on 21 March 1965, Mr. Montgomery had become one of Dr. King’s bodyguards.  The march took four days of walking 12 hours a day, sleeping in fields along the way, protected by U.S. Army troops and Alabama National Guard forces that President Johnson had ordered.

dabney-montgomery-5Eventually, Mr. Montgomery returned to his job in New York City and in 1971 he married the girl of his dreams, Amelia. Mr. Montgomery retired from the New York City Housing Authority in 1988, but he did not rest on his laurels!  Since his retirement, he has worked as a Social Outreach Worker for Project FIND, a non-profit organization assisting older adults on Manhattan’s West Side. Montgomery was also very active with Harlem’s Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the oldest organized black church in New York, and was also active on the Parks Committee and Harlem’s Interfaith Committee of the Tenth Community Board of Manhattan. He also frequently visited schools to talk to the children about his experiences, and according to his wife, he remained active until he became ill, just a few weeks prior to his death.

In 2007, Mr. Montgomery, along with the other Tuskegee Airmen, received the Congressional Gold Medal.  The heels from the shoes he wore during the march from Selma to Montgomery will be on display in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which is scheduled to open the 24th of this month.

dabney-montgomery-4There is no official record of how many of the Tuskegee Airmen are still alive today.  What is certain is that within another decade, there will likely be none left to tell the story.  With that in mind, a group called The History Makers began recording, preserving and sharing the life stories of thousands of African Americans, from President Barack Obama to the oldest living black cowboy.  You can hear Mr. Montgomery’s story in his own words .  What a noble project!  And what a noble man … my hat is off to Mr. Dabney Montgomery … Rest in Peace, sir, and thank you for your many contributions.