This year’s Black History Month theme is, “African Americans and the Vote” which was selected by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the founders of Black History Month.
The theme is built around important anniversaries—the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, the right of Black men to vote after the Civil War, and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
This year is also the 55th anniversary of one of the watershed moments in civil rights history. The Freedom Movement, as it was called, placed a lot of emphasis on the right to vote, which had been denied to Blacks living in the South since the end of Reconstruction.
Blacks were systematically barred from the polls through use of poll taxes and literacy tests. And when those methods failed to dissuade potential Black voters, economic sanctions were threatened and when that failed, racists resorted to outright intimidation and violence. Many courageous Black people lost their lives because they voted or attempted to vote.
Voting was considered the bedrock of democracy, but Black people had to risk life and limb protesting in an effort to force the federal government to grant what was guaranteed to them as citizens of the republic.
The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), literally put theirs and other people’s lives on the line by organizing Black people to vote in many backwater and backwards Southern locations in this country.
Martin Luther Kings’ Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in conjunction with SNCC, brought the issue of voting rights to a head with its campaign in Alabama, which culminated into a focus on Selma. The bloody campaign cost the lives of Jimmie Lee Jackson and a Unitarian minister James Reeb, as White supremacists resorted to violence to thwart Black folks’ efforts to become full citizens.
Amelia Boynton, who had been active in organizing Blacks in Selma against Jim Crow laws and for the vote, was one of the primary organizers of the historic February 1965 Selma march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, also known as Bloody Sunday. The international embarrassment suffered by the US hastened then-president Lyndon B Johnson’s signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act later that year.
The idea to celebrate and promote African American achievements and milestones began in 1915, initiated by historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African American figures of his day. That group is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life History.
The group chose the second week in February in 1926 to celebrate “Negro History Week,” which was chosen for its symbolism. Both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born that week.
Woodson was born in 1875, the son of former slaves. He earned his high school diploma in an all-Black high school in Huntington and obtained advanced degrees at the University of Chicago. He was only the second African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. He established the Association for the Study of African American Life History in 1915.
In the late 1960s, the week evolved into an entire month at the insistence of the Freedom Now Movement, otherwise referred to as the Civil Rights Movement. An editorial in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier accurately summarized the importance of this month’s observation.
“Black History Month has been giving schools and communities opportunities for learning ever since. The fact that there have been generations of ignorance and prejudice placed against an entire people is cause enough to continually familiarize ourselves with the African American experience.
From the time of forced enslavement through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the struggles that continue today, Black history is a significant part of American history. In addition to the many poignant moments in civil rights history, Black History Month also recognizes achievements and struggles that too often have been relegated to historical footnotes.
We all need a thorough understanding of American history to assist us in comprehending the present and shaping the future, both nationally and locally. Black history is a large part of American history.
Information and knowledge bring understanding.”
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.