The best of our nation’s history

George Gresham | 2/5/2015, 10:02 a.m.

There are those who are opposed to the observance of Black History Month. They argue that Black history is U.S. history, and that the history of African-Americans in our nation should not be separated or segregated.

That is precisely a major goal of the month—to more fully integrate our long journey into our national narrative. But we are not there yet. Not nearly enough of our schools, educators and leaders know or are willing to acknowledge the struggles and contributions of African-Americans to our nation’s journey and progress.

When Dr. Carter G.Woodson inaugurated Black History Week in 1926, he chose the second week in February because it included the birthdays of two great figures of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, the former slave and powerful leader of the abolition movement, and President Abraham Lincoln, whose evolution while in office transformed him into one of our finest presidents.

Lincoln, whose views on African-Americans and slavery developed during his presidency, also understood well the importance of working people. He said: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

The struggle to enjoy the fruits of our labor has inspired the struggles of African-Americans since our forebears arrived on U.S. shores in shackles. Thus, Black history is not just about those whose names we find in history books or newspaper headlines. It is the history of a people whose struggles and victories have advanced our democracy and moved our nation closer to its stated ideals.

And nowhere is this truer than within the labor movement. Unions have won their greatest victories, such as the historic organizing of industrial workers in the 1930s, when unity was greatest. That unity is sorely needed today because working people are falling further and further behind. This was brought home powerfully last month when Oxfam, the international charity organization, using research from Credit Suisse and Forbes magazine’s annual billionaires list, determined that by next year, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population will control half of the world’s total wealth.

Furthermore, the world’s 80 wealthiest people—35 of whom are American—now hold $1.9 trillion in wealth—the same amount that is owned by the 3.5 billion people at the bottom half of the world’s income scale.

Two of the 35 Americans in the super-rich club of 80 are Charles G. and David H. Koch, billionaire right-wingers who announced last month that they will use their vast political network to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections. What do they expect to get for their unprecedented outlay? We know that among the Koch’s primary goals are elimination of government, destruction of social programs such as health care, education and social services, and deregulation, including elimination of environmental and safety standards.

To help achieve these objectives, they target unions and organizations that seek to advance the interests of women, civil rights and civil liberties. Labor and the progressive community can’t begin to match the Kochs’ billions, but we have something they can’t match: the people.

Numbers alone, however, don’t guarantee success. We can draw lessons from our rich history. Ava DuVernay’s powerful film “Selma” has Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at its center, but it also makes clear that it was the movement of ordinary folks, including whites, that ultimately won passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act 50 years ago. Among the film’s heroes are lesser-known African-American women pioneers, who are usually relegated to the background, such as Annie Lee Cooper, Diane Nash and Amelia Boynton.

Today, extremists in legislative chambers across the nation who do the bidding of the moneyed interests would like to turn back the clock and reverse the victories that our heroes fought and died for. We must not let that happen.

King told us that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That justice, however, is not guaranteed. Douglass reminded us, and history has confirmed: “Power concedes nothing without a struggle. It never has and it never will.”