Incorporating the Ideals of Black History Month — In Our Daily Lives
By Lydia Lum
I sat on the back porch of an old white clapboard house interviewing Montgomery, Ala., residents. A colleague had suggested retreating there because the outdoor music and entertainment were drowning out the voices of those I was trying to interview. The suggestion worked, and for over an hour amid tranquility, I jotted notes of civil rights memories for my assignment. The house blended in with other bungalows on the modest block of South Jackson Street. I peeked through a window. Inside, it was dark. I hadn’t seen the front of the house yet. Who used to live here?
Who, indeed. It turned out it was the residence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he pastored at the nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the 1950s.
My colleagues and I grew wide-eyed. Questions poured out of our mouths and we secured a private tour of what is now known as the Dexter Parsonage Museum. Open to the public since 2003, the two-bedroom home’s interior is filled with period furnishings donated from various sources to show as closely as possible how King and his young family lived. In the hallway is a simple, wooden telephone stand and built-in seat, something that antique shops nowadays sell for hundreds of dollars — or more. A Sarah Vaughan album cover peeks out from a bookshelf in King’s study. A clothesline in the backyard is a reminder of how electric dryers were once considered luxuries, not household must-haves.
Our time inside was short, maybe half an hour, but definitely long enough to remind me of the fact that history is at our feet. Living history. Every day we walk in it, even if we get too wrapped up in the rat race to notice.
Until Congresswoman Barbara Jordan died in 1996, I never got around to asking my dad whether he ever met her. My grandpa’s grocery store was in Houston’s mostly Black Fifth Ward neighborhood, where Jordan grew up.
It turned out my dad sold her an apple every day on her way to class at Texas Southern University. By no means did he know her well, and in fact, those sales were their only contact. But even that little nugget of trivia reinforced history lessons I’d learned long ago. Jordan went to the historically Black TSU because White universities had not yet desegregated. After Jordan went to my family’s store every day, she waited outside for the bus, prepared to sit in the back as all Blacks did at that time. It was but one of the countless indignities Blacks had to endure.
Speaking of buses, it was in Montgomery where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a White passenger in 1955, leading to the citywide bus boycott. King was an instrumental leader in the boycott, and roles such as this angered someone enough to bomb his home in 1956. A four-inch crater on the front porch is a testament of how lucky everyone inside the house was that evening to escape injury.
I’ve read articles and opinion pieces in recent years questioning the continued need for Black History Month. Although I’m not Black, I believe it important not only to keep, but that we as individuals, regardless of color, should incorporate the month’s ideals into our days outside of February. How? It’s not every day that one can wander into the former home of a world-renowned civil rights leader. Yet, we can make it as simple as asking questions of friends, neighbors or co-workers during the course of conversation, which is how I learned of my dad’s apple sales to Jordan. Conversation starters surround us.
Look no further than headline news. In Mississippi, an elderly White preacher has been charged in the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers during Freedom Summer, the climax of an intense voter-registration drive in the South. While the preacher’s fate will be decided in court, we have an opportunity to remember — and in some cases, learn — what happened to the young men, whose murders are the subject of the film, “Mississippi Burning.” Despite the infamy of those murders, countless Americans, especially those born in recent decades, have never heard of them, much less grasped the scope of the hatred against Blacks at that time. There’s nothing stopping us from asking people alive during the civil rights movement for their memories. Nor is there anything stopping us from a Google search.
A friend who’s Black says that at speaking engagements, his audience often makes assumptions, so he tells them he’s “not the son of a sharecropper.” While his anecdote makes me laugh, it illustrates a broader point: Until we as a society have a much firmer understanding of African-American life and history, and its similarities and differences with others, we need the ideals of Black History Month in our lives. Every day.
— Lydia Lum is a longtime Black Issues correspondent who has, among other things, interviewed elderly Chinese survivors who immigrated through Angel Island before World War II.
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