Learning from history

By Randy Riley - Contributing Columnist

Fifty-five years ago, I picked up a book from the paperback book rack in our high school library. At that time the American civil rights movement was resulting in very turbulent times throughout the entire United States.

Riots were becoming common in many of our major cities. From Birmingham to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Cincinnati, people were fighting for equal rights. Many were dying.

As a family, we watched the nightly news reports of the violence on our old black-and-white television. My Mom was appalled by the injustices that had been, and were being inflicted, on black Americans. We talked about it in school and at home.

The realities of the situation were frightening. For us, it was impossible to imagine what it would be like to be black in America in 1965.

The book I bought that afternoon in 1965 had been published a few years earlier. It was written by John Howard Griffin. Griffin was a journalist from Texas. Like many Americans, Griffin could not comprehend the reason for all the turmoil and hatred that was tearing America apart.

He could not imagine what the blacks in America were going through as they lived in our strictly segregated society. He couldn’t understand the racial segregation that had existed since long before the Civil War had ended.

He could not completely understand the anger and determination that flowed through the veins of black Americans who had decided that they would not take any more.

He simply could not understand the black viewpoint. He decided to find out.

Griffin underwent a complex and thorough cosmetic process of changing his hair and skin so he would appear to be an African American. He left Texas and traveled to Mississippi. When he stepped off the bus in the deep south, he was no longer a white man. He was black.

He was treated, not like the white man he had been, but like a black man in the segregated south. He was not treated well.

He carefully documented his experiences, the injustices, the humiliation and the fear he felt as he simply looked for someplace to eat and sleep. Each day was the same. Gainful employment was impossible to find. Wherever he wandered he was met with hate filled stares and foul language.

He started his six-week experience as a black man in late 1959. His book was published in 1962.

Since then, reviewers of the book have stated that his book, “Black Like Me”, is “arguably the single most important documentation of 20th-century American racism ever written.” I was startled as I read his firsthand account of how black men lived in the segregated south.

Fifty-five years later, our laws have changed, conditions have improved, but the separation between our races is still vast. It is also still wrong. It has always been wrong, and it will always be wrong to discriminate against other people.

We need to never forget that basic lesson. Discrimination is wrong.

The recognition of Black History Month — pausing annually to look at the mistakes of our past and making a concerted effort to learn from our past mistakes so that we might live peaceably, productively and happily with our neighbors, regardless of their skin color, the texture of their hair or the shape of their eyes — is an important thing for us to do.

I am delighted that Carter G. Woodson and his associates established Black History Month.

Woodson was born the son of slaves and eventually received his doctorate from Harvard University. In 1915 he traveled with other educators to Chicago to participate in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States. That event impressed Woodson.

After that event, Woodson and his associates worked to assure that black history would always be remembered and celebrated. They were determined that black Americans would always remember the horrors of being ripped from their homes in Africa and forced into slavery in a foreign nation.

They were determined to celebrate black American heroes and role models. They were determined to continue the process of assuring that future generations of people of color could enjoy equal rights and freedoms under all circumstances.

Both Woodson and Griffin wanted all Americans to understand the history of black Americans. They also wanted all Americans to understand that there is no truth in the phrase “separate-but-equal.”

We are all Americans. We are all equal.

That is how we should think of each other. That is how we should always treat each other.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.


By Randy Riley

Contributing Columnist