A Personal Reflection on Black History Month
by Martha J. Grier
Wayne County Community College District
Each year as February rolls in, the nation turns its attention to “Black” history – it has come to be known as Black History Month. Many of the celebrations during February deal with the contributions of Black people to our society, Black struggles, and ultimately equality, injustice, and brotherhood.
In recent years, this celebration really begins in January with the “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” holiday. Which is the reason I am reflecting on my personal experience in the “struggle.”
During a recent church celebration of “MLK Day,” a friend came up to me and said, “Why didn’t you speak. I always like to hear you talk about your involvement.” My reply was, “Sometimes it’s too painful – today I am too emotional.” For me, it is about the loss of friends and neighbors – the loss of gifted and talented people that gave it all to make this a better world for us all.
My involvement began in the 1960’s and I would like to tell you about two significant individuals that I consider personal losses: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Earl Chaney. Let me start with my neighbor James Earl Chaney.
In the early 1960’s, James and I attended the same high school in Meridian, Mississippi. Our homes faced each other but we were not very close friends. You see, the home once was a place where I spent many days and evenings with my close friends Irene and Corrine. Late one evening, the home burned and, as a result, the Hopper twins and family moved away. When the house was restored, the Chaney family moved in. James was quite active in the civil rights movement and after he was suspended from school for wearing a T-shirt with “NAACP” imprinted on the front, we began to talk. He thought that I may have some leverage with the principle and could get him back in school. After his suspension was lifted, he was always on the move and we drifted apart. In 1964 James was murdered, along with Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner as they participated in a voter registration drive called “Freedom Summer” near Philadelphia, Mississippi. I was away in college at the time. It was devastating watching the news – which was often broadcast from the front yard of my home as they would show the Chaney home.
I then became involved in the “movement” with other classmates at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. On March 25, 1965, a group of us joined the Selma to Montgomery march on the last day.
I recall that day in Montgomery where thousands gathered, and as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s car drove through the crowd he held his right hand out of the front window and we were thrilled to touch his hand. His arrival brought such a sense of peace and organization and we began the march to the Capital Building. On that day I was privileged to witness his great speech “Our God is Marching On!” which is often referred to as the “How Long, Not Long” speech.
In the speech, he asks, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne? . . . . How long, not long. . . .” and it goes on. Of course, his most famous “I Have a Dream” speech was personally witnessed by my Sister Nancy who was at the Lincoln Memorial in the front row. What a brilliant and loving human being.
Today, many do not remember that Dr. King’s idea of non-violence and Christian love was the key elements in the civil rights movement.
When accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King stated,
“. . . I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. . . . I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. . . .”
In plain language, he was referring to “what is versus what ought to be. Black History Month should or “ought” to be every month – it “ought” to be American History.
A few years later, and after Dr. King’s assassination, I moved to Ohio and through my adopted godfather, Rev. Dr. L. Venchael Booth (LV), I became acquainted with the King family, especially Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.– better known as “Daddy King.” Both LV and Daddy King were Baptist ministers fighting for justice. Daddy King led organizations in Atlanta such as the Civic and Political League and the NAACP, and organized many voter registration initiatives. LV fought for justice within the Baptist church and ultimately established the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
Now, they are all gone: Martin, James, Daddy King and LV– brilliant minds and loving hearts.
So, as I suffer the pain of loss, and sometimes become overwhelmed with emotion and may not be able to talk about it, I will forever remember those brave ones and those gifted ones who gave it all in the name of justice, love, and brotherhood.
These are the shoulders on which my people stand.