man001055. Roosevelt Fitzgerald Professional Papers, 1890-1996. MS-01082. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada. http://n2t.net/ark:/62930/d1t72bw3q
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OUR HISTORY BY ROOSEVELT FITZGERALD
There was a time during the 1970s and the early 1980s when it was common to find many young people, under the age of twenty or so, who either did not know or who knew very little about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This was so partially because many of them had not been born during the thirteen year span (1955-1968) in which Dr. King rose to international prominence. Others, of the remainder, had been so young during those years as to be unaware of the great social revolution which took place which we generally refer to as the civil rights movement.
For this latter group, born and nurtured in a society and a nation in which people of color were no longer blatantly discriminated against, it may well have seemed that equality or near-equality was normal. To them, sitting on the back of busses, suffering racial covenants in housing, relegation to the most menial of jobs, limited access to institutions of higher learning, prohibition from participation in inter-collegiate athletics in the larger state and private institutions, discrimination in the hiring policies of state and local agencies such as fire departments, police departments, highway patrol departments, political restrictions, lack of access to public accommodations and just about every other aspect of American domestic life was something which might have existed a long time ago in a society far, far away.
This is not to suggest that those generations were any less intelligent than others. They were, in fact, victims of the times in which they lived. The approximate third quarter of the Twentieth Century was a time of upheaval in the United States in the area of race relations. By the time the Nazis were invading Poland, close to 80% of the black population of this country lived within a 500 mile radius of Atlanta, Georgia. Of that, close to 60%
lived within 300 miles. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of black Americans
still lived primarily in what was the old south--south of the Potomac, the Ohio and Missouri rivers.
For the fifteen years following the invasion of Poland there were some demographic changes in the black population center of the country. Many migrated to the north, east and west in search of jobs in the war industries where they hoped to enhance their quality of life. To some extent that did in fact occur. They were able to earn more and have easier access to the ballot. Still, in many respects, their lifestyles were unchanged from what it had been in the deep south. In housing, education, accommodation and the remainder they discovered that while they had excaped DeJure segregation the encountered DeFacto segregation in what had been touted as the "promised land."
There are yet many Americans who refuse to acknowledge Dr. Martin Luther King as a great national hero. Most of them have no difficulty in allowing that he was a great "Black" leader but nothing more than that. In their minds forever lingers the question; "how can a black man be a hero for white Americans?" To allow such thinking requires an absence of logic. Pursuing their thinking, one might well ask; "how could George Washington,- Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and other white men be heroes to black Americans? Those who raise such questions, even in their own minds, do not understand that there are some things which are bigger than
state matters, athletic conferences, regional ism and ideologies. It is in the realm of such things that national heroes and heroines and found. To reach such status, such individuals must transcend even our most devisive element; racialism.
It is partially due to their reluctance to allow that to happen with any other than white male Americans that we are faced with the dilemma® Neither during his lifetime nor in the years immediatedly following his assassination
could there be found widespread mention of his accomplishments. That was not unusual when it came to black notables. Traditionally, school texts only provided cursory references to black Americans. America's school children, of all races, were denied access to their accomplishments. In the case of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the ommission was of much greater gravity. Not only did his efforts help bring about a spark of life to our democratic way of life, but it was done at a time when we as a nation was supposed to have been more enlightened than we had been during the days of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Bannecker and many others.
I first became aware of this absence of knowledge of one of America's greatest leaders in my Black History classes when I noticed the year to year growing numbers of students, black and white, who only had a vague knowledge of him. Many of them knew something but when called upon to speak of him could not muster a full minute's discourse. Their knowledge was not cerebral but emotional. On further investigation I found that none had attended schools where formal Black History courses part of the curriculum an/in the standard United States History courses there was little in the way of the black experience in the United States. There were others who had attended schools where there were no Black History Month observances and, in those places where there were such observances they generally depended on the size of the black student populations, the willingness and ability of teachers to take on the added responsibility of organizing programs and the philosophy of the school district and the principals of the individual schools.
Whatever happens within any organization is determined by that organization's leadership. If the leadership is interested in a program, whatever it may be, it will find a way to implement it. Seemingly, during those years, at least, there were not many school districts with a to implement Black History
Month programs. Many of them begged off by saying that there was no need for
such programs—that they serve only to fragment school district populations. Of course, we know what such administrators really meant.
In many of the other schools, Black History Month committees, now and in the past, have opted to invite local black "leaders" to do talks in classrooms or assemblies. These speakers are few in numbers owing to the fact that they are not always able to get release time from their jobs. Further, such talks usually follow a formula and has more to do with the speakers' occupations and exhortations for students to remain in school, study hard, stay our of trouble and everything will eventually work out in their best interssts.
Rare is the occassion when such speakers actually address the subject of black history. It should not be something that is ad-libbed. To do so is demeaning to our history. When inviting such speakers, we should take into account not only whether they are well known but how well do they know our history.
More to come.