Black History Month
Our recent campus celebrations honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the variety of events connected to Black History Month are cause for reflection on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campuses and in our communities.
The quote of Dr. King I find myself using most often is, “We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.” Miraculous changes have occurred during my lifetime: I was born months before the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This was followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act and the Higher Education Act. These three Acts and the adoption of the 19th Amendment extending the vote to women in 1920 represent the most important legislative achievements for democracy and equity in the United States during the past century.
The momentum of progress has been inconsistent, and there have been disappointing instances of regress. This is our history, but it need not be our future. As Frederick Douglass said in his remarkable speech on the 4th of July 1852 in Rochester, NY, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.”
Thirty-four year later, in a speech on the 24th anniversary of Emancipation in Washington, DC, Douglass said, “The American people have this to learn: that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither person nor property is safe.”
Over a century later, many of our neighbors find themselves the regular victims of poverty, ignorance, and oppression. We can do better We must do better. Our campuses are ideal proving grounds for this work. This is where we engage in difficult conversations and challenge our own beliefs and understandings of the world around us. As Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do what's right.” (speech at Oberlin College on 22 October 1964).
As our understanding of a truly democratic society develops, our goals necessarily become more complex. We must strive for inclusion, not just diversity; we must strive for acceptance, not just recognition; and we must learn respect, not just tolerance.
Douglass also said, “We know and consider that a nation is not born in a day. We know that large bodies move slowly—and often seem to move thus when, could we perceive their actual velocity, we should be astonished at its greatness. A great battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.” (speech to the Women’s Loyal League at the Cooper Institute, 13 January 1864).
It is hard to appreciate the changes for good that have occurred over time, but it is also too easy for us to fall victim to malignant patience, or worse, apathy. When we fail to recognize the role each of us plays as the authors of our culture, we all become the victims of delayed justice.
To honor Black History Month, let us all reflect on the state of our nation and commit to how each of us can best contribute to its continued moral growth. We have a collective responsibility for our equity-challenged world, but we must work together to advance discourse and actions supporting inclusion, acceptance, and respect.