A 150-year history message: What if courage had been lacking?

| June 11, 2013

By Dr. Clifford F. Buttram Jr.
Special to Frost Illustrated

Recently, I attended the University of Saint Francis’ 50th Anniversary celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. address at the former Scottish Rite. During the luncheon events, Dr. King’s nephew, Dr. Derek King, spoke about three ills that continue to affect the African American community: poverty, ignorance and in equality. Interestingly, these three issues have not fundamentally changed for the black community since Dr. King’s 1963 visit nor do they appear to even be relevant to many people in 2013. Why? Because to not adequately address poverty (from a local, state, and national level) underscores and validates multiple levels of ignorance within factions of our society which ultimately, and negatively, affect the equality that was battled for over the past 150 years. History is made every minute, but we live it through the past.

In January 1863, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became enforceable, thereby immediately freeing slaves in some Confederate states and allowing those slaves to seek freedom in non-slave holding states. Freed slaves could even join the Army to fight for their country (the Union). In April 1864, President Lincoln presided over the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: the outlaw of slavery in the U.S. and the beginning of the seeking of full rights for black person.

Now, fast forward to 1963: arguably the most turbulent year in the Civil Rights Movement and 1964: arguably the most tumultuous. In 1963, the country witnessed MLK’s speech in Fort Wayne, the August March on Washington, the murder of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombings that killed four girls, and the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1964, the country witnessed the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, but also observed the continued oppression, humiliation, and violence of black people in the South, including the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi which energized President Johnson to send the FBI to investigate.

I present this timeline comparison to highlight how far African Americans have traveled and how much we endured in the 100 years from 1863/64-1963/64. If you really think about it, what other society (or race within a society) has or had moved so quickly from slavery to equal rights? A hundred years may sound like a long time, but in the course of the adolescence of our country (237 years); it is all the more remarkable. This timeline now brings me back to reality and the historic event witnessed at University of Saint Francis on June 5, 2013. Fifty years to the day, MLK’s nephew stood at a podium where MLK had addressed the aforementioned ills and how we, as a society, have the moral and legal obligation to ensure equality’s success.

As iconic as this event was/is for our city, it is also, quite frankly, lost on many of our youth. Our youth have it so easy today, that history such as this is ancient and not even worthy of discussion. As a society, we tend to focus on the micro level and disregard the macro level: a view of the single tree instead of the entire forest approach which basically translates into we only care about ourselves and not our whole black society. We have commercialized the legacy of MLK to the point that the very people who need to know how and why his movement was so critical, have completely tuned out his true relevance.

If you are old enough to have been involved in the movement or simply lived through it, I need not say anymore. If you’re my age and have parents and grandparents who lived it, my sincere hope is that you appreciate their sacrifice for you, your family, and our current success. However, if you’re 25 or below (and probably not reading this), you need to use your iPhone for something other than tweeting, playing games, or texting all day. Use it to conduct some Internet research about the Civil Rights Movement, the leaders of that movement, and the history of the African American from 1863 to 2013 (150 years). Think about how far we have come and then speculate where we may be as a race in 2063. If the incarceration and murder rates of our black men continue to rise, our race will eventually wither and perish. It is simple math. As our elders pass, there will be fewer and fewer to take the mantle of societal and family leadership. Crime, violence and a sense of hopelessness and lethargy are a disease in our society that we appear not to want to battle. However, diseases can be combatted and even cured if caught in a timely manner. However, you have to be willing to fight it or the disease will eventually win.

In closing, I openly wonder if we have the courage to battle this disease we’re facing in the black community. Do we have the courage and determination of a MLK, or Medgar Evers, or Malcolm X, or even the proud black men and women who struggled in the movement, who kept their families together, and eventually prospered after we gained some ground in the equality fight? Have we forgotten our struggle because we have supposedly ‘made it’? Well, imagine if MLK lost his nerve on any one if his marches or speeches? Imagine if Malcolm didn’t have the courage to travel to Mecca, then come home and change his mind about our society? Imagine if Medgar just abandoned his cause under all the life threatening pressure he and his family received and left Mississippi for someone else to handle? If you imagine long enough, we may not have even received our civil rights had these three just gave up on fighting the disease. We must continue do the hard community work to preserve what we have before we lose everything our ancestors so valiantly fought for in the past 150 years. Until we speak next time, take time thank a black teacher, a black social worker, a black police officer or firefighter, a black attorney or doctor, a black veteran, a black worker, or even any elderly black man or woman for their struggle and their commitment to holding together our continued fragmented black community. And, continue to think about our past and then ponder the future.

Dr. Clifford F. Buttram Jr. is a retired U.S. Army officer with more than 20 years of leadership and management experience in organizational development, communication, behavior, and visioning. He has taught and led in a variety of college environments including serving as a professor of Military Science and Leadership at Eastern Michigan University, an Army ROTC regional marketing liaison at the University of Michigan, dean of Academic Affairs at ITT Technical Institute in Fort Wayne and South Bend, and campus director at National College in Fort Wayne. Dr. Buttram is active throughout the community including serving in communications for the MLK Club Inc. of Fort Wayne and as a lecturer at the Three Rivers Institute of Afrikan Art & Culture.


This article originally appeared in the June 12 print edition.

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Category: Local, Opinion

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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