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JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Why Black History Month?

I have not had extensive experience in working with African Americans. The school where I taught in Camden, N.J., was predominantly black and the staff when I directed North Camden's summer recreation program were also black. Even though I had just spent a couple of years working in poverty areas in the Peace Corps in South America, I came to Camden naive and not well versed in working in an African American community. My knowledge of black history, culture, politics and issues was sorely lacking.

In spite of my naivety I fondly look back on those years in the late 1960s and 70s. It was definitely a learning experience. I have many memorable moments but one relates well to Black History Month.

It was the practice of the junior high school where I taught that during the ten minute or so homeroom in the morning, students would stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Because I was an English as a second language teacher and was not assigned a homeroom, I often was a substitute for an absent classroom homeroom teacher. The students were not overly attentive during this exercise. Frequently I would have to remind them to show more respect.

Initially I was disappointed in the students' behavior but the more I worked with the parents and youth in the community and the more I increased my awareness of black history, culture and issues, as well as taking more of an interest in what was happening around the United States with civil rights, I came to understand that when the students recited the last part of the Pledge of Allegiance, "with liberty and justice for all," I realized this didn't really apply to African Americans.

African Americans were not experiencing "liberty" for all and they certainly were not experiencing "justice for all." If you were not part of the white community, you could not reap the benefits promised to all of the citizens in the United States regardless of what our Constitution said. The 1960s were not so many years ago. Much progress has been made but today African Americans are still fighting for liberty and justice for all.

So why do we celebrate Black History Month? I think the reason is partly to help all Americans become more familiar with African American culture and history and to remind us of the struggles African Americans faced these past 200-plus years and, more importantly, to remind us that the struggles are not over.

Although civil rights legislation was enacted under President Johnson in the 1960s why do we still encounter injustices for African Americans nearly 60 years later? We can raise the same question for Native Americans and many of the same answers would apply.

In reading Martin Luther King, Jr's "Why We Can't Wait" (published in 1964), he said, "When he (referring to a black person) seeks opportunity, he is told, in effect, to lift himself by his own bootstraps, advice which does not take into account the fact that he is barefoot."

Most white Americans have never really understood the Black Lives Matter movement. Why just single out "black Americans"? Why shouldn't it be "All Lives Matter" or "American Lives Matter" or "Workers Lives Matter"? Well, they do matter, but when you still find instances where there is unequal treatment and where there is not justice for all, as in the case of black Americans, then someone has to remind us "Black Lives Matter," too. Many African Americans are still barefoot.

Yes, it's important for us to know that African Americans were with George Washington at Valley Forge; to know that Crispus Attucks was a black man and the first to shed blood during the American Revolution; and to know that Benjamin Banneker, also a black man, helped design the Capitol in Washington, D.C. These are important contributions but we can't just leave it there. Black History month also means ensuring that every black person today has an equal opportunity to lead a meaningful life.

The United States is undergoing tumultuous times. We have faced them before. For the first time, however, people from other countries are thinking twice about coming to the United States. At one time they considered the United States to be a beacon for democracy where everyone had an opportunity to become whatever they want to become. Black History month reminds us that we cannot let this beacon fade. We have come too far to reverse directions.

In writing about the Birmingham civil right protests in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people."

Black History month is about continuing to hear the voice of good people and to make sure they are heard regardless of whether you are black or white.

Riddle: Who led slaves to freedom on a train but was never a conductor? (Harriet Tubman) Today all of us need to be conductors on that train that leads to liberty and justice for all.