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John Eggers: Ensuring equal opportunity for all

I’m looking at this black-and-white photo of 40 young African-American girls ranging in ages from 4 to about 18. Each girl has a pail, book or box on her head. A date on one of the boxes reads 1836. The photo is not that old, but it probably dates to the latter part of the 19th Century.

I purchased the photo about 30 years ago in Iowa. I don’t know the story behind it but these young girls were obviously being trained to carry things on their heads as well as maybe walk tall and straight. They could have been part of a finishing school meant to teach young black girls how to be maids or servants.

Could they have been slaves? I really don’t know. They are all dressed in cotton dresses probably made from flour or feed sacks. These sacks were commonly used to make clothes as recently as the 1950s.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to have met each of these young people and listen to their stories 20 or 30 years after this photo was taken? I wonder how many were from the South; how many married and where did they settle? I wonder how many were slaves and how many of their husbands, uncles, fathers or brothers fought in the Civil War?

How many went to school and did any go on to college? Were they all farmers or did some find work in town? Did any start their own business? What did their parents die from and who lived the longest? Did any ever listen to a radio or see a movie? What would they say when we told them that in 2008 we would elect a black president?

I would eventually ask them this question, “Are you satisfied with your life right now? If you are not satisfied, what would bring you the greatest satisfaction?”

I find it hard to believe that few if any African-Americans living around the turn of the 19th Century would be satisfied with their lot in life. How could they be when they would see white Americans going to better schools, having better jobs, nicer homes, owning land and not having to worry too much about what they would eat in the evening.

In 1976, as part of the United States Bicentennial, Negro History Week (which began in 1926) was expanded to Black History Month. President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

As I studied this photo of black children and as I was thinking about February being Black History Month, the question arises as it does every year, “Do we still need it?” Don’t African-Americans as well as Native Americans and Latinos have everything they need to succeed? If one African-American can succeed like President Obama, all should be able to succeed? Right?

What was missing in the lives of those young girls in the photo and what is missing in the lives of many (not all) African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, people in poverty and even in women, is something that I have always enjoyed in my life and as well as most of you who read this column. This one quality still denied to many Americans is opportunity.

This is the 21st century, doesn’t everyone have equal opportunity? Surely they must. Unfortunately, they don’t.

Let’s take, for example, one of those girls in the photo and transfer her to today. Let’s also put her in a situation where there is one parent, living on assistance, who earns a minimum wage, faces some prejudice, has no reliable means of transportation and who has issues with drugs. Through no fault of her own, the young girl we choose faces seemingly insurmountable odds to succeed in life. How can she overcome the lack of opportunity that her parent cannot provide even though he or she may try to do the best for their child?

How important is equal opportunity? I used to tell my students that it is important for everyone to get in the race and not just be someone watching the race. That is, if you want to be your best and do your best, you can’t just sit and be an observer you have to get in the race and at least do your best to finish the race.

Unfortunately too many young people today, especially minority youth and youth living in poverty, start 20 yards behind the starting line. It takes commitment, conviction and courage to finish the race let alone make it to the starting line. Too often, too many issues get in the way and they don’t have the stamina to finish the race, for example, getting a high school or college diploma.

What advice would the girls in the photo have for Americans today? They would probably say something like, “Make sure everyone has an equal chance to succeed.” I would add, “Yes, and we may need to give a little push along the way.”

America has come a long, long way since the photo of these black children was taken. Honoring Black History Month gives us the opportunity to not only recognize the contributions of black people but it also reminds us that we need to do more to ensure that all people have equal opportunity to experience the good life America has to offer.

JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.