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What's Wrong With Black History Month?

By       Message Larry Butler     Permalink
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America is all about freedom, at least for some of us. And a look at our history shows just how much we've struggled with what that actually means.

My wife Carol and I have traveled constantly for more than a decade, soaking up everything this land has to offer. And we enjoyed the 2015 travel season. Perhaps more than any before, it was instructive. American history is a complex web of conflicts, culture, economics, and human psychology. And everything is connected to this web.

Massachusetts was too small for the ideas of Roger Williams
Massachusetts was too small for the ideas of Roger Williams
(Image by Larry Butler)
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We visited Rhode Island and got to know Roger Williams. An advocate for the rights of Native Americans, he called into question the land charters of the Crown. He was arguably the first abolitionist in North America, and that got him into a lot of trouble. Kicked out of Massachusetts in 1636 for being too liberal, Williams fled north and established Rhode Island to ensure religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

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Did you know that John Quincy Adams freed the slaves?
Did you know that John Quincy Adams freed the slaves?
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We visited the Adams National Historic Park in Massachusetts. We learned that John Adams was a devout Christian in the Puritan tradition who believed in the separation of church and state as well as the emancipation of enslaved Americans. His son, John Quincy, defended the kidnapped Africans who commandeered the Amistad; his successful defense secured their freedom.

Frederick Douglass declined John Brown's invitation to join the raid on Harper's Ferry
Frederick Douglass declined John Brown's invitation to join the raid on Harper's Ferry
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We visited the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC. Douglass shared a common cause with John Brown, but he declined Brown's invitation to join him in the raid on Harper's Ferry. By so doing, he later found himself in a position to influence the policies of the Lincoln Administration. The 13th, 14th, 15th, and 24th Amendments that later defined freedom for African Americans connected Roger Williams, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and the fight for civil rights that followed.

Hampton Plantation, and some of its outbuildings
Hampton Plantation, and some of its outbuildings
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We visited the Hampton National Historic Site and compared the grandeur of the plantation house with the quarters of the enslaved people. You wouldn't really want to live there, but as slave quarters go we've seen a lot worse. In fact these were made to look very nice out the outside so the view from the plantation house wouldn't be ruined. The folks who lived here were enslaved in Maryland. Because Maryland was part of the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation did nothing to advance freedom here.

The great hall at Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty
The great hall at Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty
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We visited the Statue of Liberty, that American icon of freedom. It was a gift from the French dedicated in 1886, during a time when America's own gift of freedom was offered very selectively indeed. In the South, Jim Crow laws had supplanted the freedom and promise of Reconstruction. Elsewhere, pockets of nativism terrorized immigrants who were identified with unfamiliar races or religions. But Lady Liberty forever defined the American ideal of freedom without discrimination.

The wheelchair ramp at the FDR Memorial, and the cottage at Campobello
The wheelchair ramp at the FDR Memorial, and the cottage at Campobello
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We visited Campobello, Franklin Roosevelt's family retreat on the Bay of Fundy. It was here that Franklin lost his own freedom to move about on his own legs. But his resolve was undiminished and he went on to lead a nation to a broader economic freedom than it had enjoyed for decades. And it may have been here that Eleanor developed into the champion of common people that was so evident in later years.

The Great Dismal Swamp harbors some secrets we should know
The Great Dismal Swamp harbors some secrets we should know
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We paddled around in the Great Dismal Swamp, and learned of some of the communities that formed here hundreds of years ago. Enslaved African-Americans sought their freedom here, away from the brutality of the plantations. They found a hard life, but one that was sustained by the natural resources of the swamp and the entrepreneurs on the fringes. The latter would trade manufactured necessities for the timber that was needed elsewhere - including the very plantations that drove the slaves to refuge.

Montgomery, Alabama then and now
Montgomery, Alabama then and now
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We visited Montgomery, AL. It was here during the 1950s and 1960s that the Civil Rights Movement came of age. Together, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, James Bevel, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, and others moved Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Earl Warren toward recognition of the rights and freedoms so long denied to African-Americans.

Two young activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL
Two young activists at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL
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We visited Selma, AL. Here blood was shed in 1965 to gain a right already guaranteed by the Constitution - the simple right to vote. We walked and rode the Edmund Pettus Bridge where it happened. We visited Brown Chapel, where protesters assembled - and to which they were later pursued on horseback with billy clubs and cattle prods. We met a young activist, Columbus, who volunteers at the site of the Selma memorial to explain the importance of these events to anybody who will listen. We listened.

Tuskegee Airmen were heroes in the 1940s and beyond
Tuskegee Airmen were heroes in the 1940s and beyond
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We visited the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. Here African-Americans were trained in aerial combat in preparation for service in the Mediterranean Theatre during WWII. These airmen distinguished themselves and earned the respect of the Italians in whose communities they lived. But here in America, they were denied the rights of basic citizenship - let alone the respect they had earned with their blood and service. We learned a lot, and we cried a little.

Years later Tuskegee Airmen turned up again in Selma, marching to claim the right to vote. By 1965 many of them were influential citizens - doctors, lawyers, and university professors. But even while enjoying the freedoms that their success had brought them, they recognized a truth - that we're not free 'til we're all free.

Years ago, I was privileged to meet one of the Freedom Riders who came to the Deep South in the 1960s to demonstrate for civil rights. His were the words I'll never forget - "We're not free 'til we're all free." He understood that my freedom, even as a white privileged male, is connected to his freedom as a black, retired, activist minister. We're connected.

And our freedom is still a work in progress.

Following the 2013 Supreme Court ruling on Shelby County v. Holder, a dozen states immediately set in motion their plans to restrict the voting rights of their own citizens. Down in Alabama, a photo ID became necessary to vote. They are available from local DPS/DMV offices, and they're free. But 31 of these offices have been closed since the ID restrictions became law. And most of these offices were located in Alabama's "black belt" where the residents are impoverished, rural African-Americans. Many of them would have to drive 50 miles or more to get an ID, even if they can't afford a car.

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Years ago I made a decision to commit to a life of business management. After thirty five years as a small business consultant, CFO, and university educator specializing in quantitative business and economic modeling, everything changed. A (more...)
 

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