During my college days, I read a book called “Black Like Me,” a nonfiction written by John Howard Griffin, a white Texas native who undertook a six-week experiment of wanting to know how it felt to be ‘black.’
Artificially darkening his skin with an anti-vitiligo drug (spending up to 15 hours daily under an ultraviolet lamp), and dying his hair black, Griffin spoke in dialect and traveled on Greyhound buses, experiencing the trials and pathos of the American black man in 1959, when racial tensions were high. He learned firsthand the difficulties in finding a restroom in a white world, eating in public, being ignored, and other tribulations faced by a black man of that time.
The book made a huge impression on me and from that point, I have been vitally interested in the civil rights movement. Even the short poem in the book’s forward has stayed with me all these years: “Rest at pale evening / a tall, slim tree / Night coming tenderly / black like me.”
Since then I have followed current events in African-American history and felt quiet joy when successes occurred within this sometimes still-oppressed (for shame!) minority. This is a proud people who rose from slavery to make a name for themselves in spite of tremendous obstacles. They fought with the military, they fought for the right to vote, for freedom and for integration. Witness Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Bo Didley, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Malcolm X, Condoleezza Rice and literally hundreds of others who have shined among American military, politics, film, religion, gymnastics, science, education, the arts and so many other areas.
Black History—sometimes known as African- American History—Month was years in the making but is generally accepted to have been observed more recently in 1970, although the precursor to this was begun in 1926 with Negro History Week celebrated in the second week of February. This week was chosen because it coincided with Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birthdays. Through the decades and various events, that week was increased to a month in 1970, and in 1976, the full expansion was officially recognized as part of the US Bicentennial when then-President Gerald Ford pleaded with Americans to honor the accomplishments all through black history.
We have been at times a nation of war and turbulence. How unique then, when in 1965, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on the scene with his concept of non-violence and peaceful protest marches.
Today, his unforgettable words ring in the heart of every American who abides by non-violence. May we observe Black History Month 2016 with celebrations of those who have fought for citizenship and equality on all fronts by echoing King’s sentiments: “I have a dream that…one day we will live in a nation where we will not be judged by the color of our skin but by the content of our character…”