Sunday, February 27, 2011


Like most people, I find the racial epitaph in the subject line above to be both offensive and demeaning. However, I am old enough to remember a time when the word was used a lot more frequently, and it wasn’t considered to be derogatory at the time.

My parents grew up in a small farming community in Minnesota. Even today, the town is 97% Caucasian, so it’s safe to say that there aren’t a lot of Negroes in the town. I would not consider either one of my parents to be prejudiced, but I heard them refer to Negroes as “darkies” or “niggers” with absolutely no malice whatsoever.

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
was published by Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) in December of 1884. In the book, he used the word “nigger” more than 200 times, in large part because that was how most white Americans described Negroes at the time. There have been some very recent attempts to “sanitize” the book by removing the word “nigger”, but there are a large group of people who feel that the word “nigger” is an integral pat of the original message of “Huckleberry Finn” and should not be removed.

Shortly before I started high school, the first “Freedom Rides” left Washington, D.C.. When I was I a freshman, my instructors at the Catholic boys high school that I attended provided some valuable insight about the concept of “racial equality”, and Martin Luther King’s speech on my birthday in 1963 finally succeeded in planting the seed of moral outrage someplace deep within me.

I have a dream

Although the decade of the 1960‘s is the time period when “black folks” finally got some proper legal protection, via the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there were a few events in the 1950’s that helped to provide the moral underpinnings for the law:

The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision

The 1955 murder of Emmett Till

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in December of 1955, which led to the Montgomery bus boycott.

The “Little Rock nine” petitioned to enter Little Rock High School in September of 1957.

Due in large part to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Black History Month has been celebrated in America since 1976, but its origins go back a lot further in history.

Negro History Week was started by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Although it’s impossible to know his motivation for doing so, it’s likely that the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the 1924 meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey may have influenced his actions.

On a local level, Evanston recently mourned the passing of a woman who was a pioneer for civil rights in the community.

Mayme Finley Spencer was Evanston’s first female African-American alderman. She served two terms in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and was instrumental in passing the city’s fair housing ordinance, which prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of real estate. During the time that she was serving on the city council, the hospitals in Evanston refused to admit black patients for any reason. In response, her husband (Dr. Warren frank Spencer) helped to create Community Hospital in Evanston. For a number of years, it was the only hospital in Evanston that African-Americans could go to for medical services.

By now, most of us would have assumed that racial prejudice was a fading issue, but that’s actually not the case.

Shortly after her funeral, Mayme’s family received a racist letter from an unknown person. In typical fashion, they shrugged off the letter, which was essentially the approach that Mayme’s father would have taken. In a sense, he was following the advice of the reading from last Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) which advised us to “turn the other cheek”.

Another example of the fact that there’s still work that needs to be done can be found if you read the racist vitriol attached to the YouTube clip of Martin Luther King’s speech.

It’s an absolute fact that right wing hate groups are on the rise in America. A little more than a year ago, there were 932 hate groups operating in America, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It’s also true that reverse discrimination still comes into play from time to time. “Black leader” Danny Davis recently endorsed Carol Mosely Braun for mayor of Chicago ONLY because she was black. To borrow a phrase from my friends in Indiana , “that dog don’t hunt no more.”

Ms. Braun won exactly ONE of Chicago’s 2570 precincts in the recent mayoral campaign, and she received no votes at all in 174 precincts. By gathering only 9% of the total vote, she’s living proof that the citizens of Chicago voted for her on the strength of her character, and not the color of her skin.

When the 2011 Black History Month comes to its conclusion on Monday night, I’d recommend spending a little time reading about the lives of 28 black people who have made enormous contributions to our society:

I have a dream

In a lot of ways, they are all unforgettable:

Nat King and Natalie Cole

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