Jordon and Ali

Throughout black history, great black athletes have served as role models to America’s youth, in a way that may not have been possible for others leaders. And to be sure, some of these great heroes of athletics have become virtually godlike to all sports fans, not just those in the black community. Michael Jordon’s ability on the basketball field during his career at times seems to be virtually superhuman. And the career of Mohammed Ali sent such a powerful message of black pride to black and white America that he virtually transformed social perception of the black man through sheer talent and attitude.

Before Mohammed Ali came along, the idea of a black boxer, even a very good black boxer becoming such a central figure for black pride seemed unlikely. But Ali demonstrated something to the youth of the African American community that was so inspirational that it helped to transform their world view like no other public figure could have done.

With his swagger and braggadocio, Ali stood out as a proud black man in such a way that had never been seen before. His use of rhyme with such phrases as “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” to his self promotion maintaining “I’m pretty”, that sent a message to black and white admirer alike. And that message was loud and clear. Ali was black and he was proud and other black men and women in America have just as much reason to be proud as he was.

This was an important message because coming out of years of oppression, it was sometimes difficult for black youth to gain a sense of pride and the self assurance needed to get out there and be a success. It took the work of great black role models such as Mohammed Ali to let them know that it is allowable for you to be proud and to be great as well. For Ali didn’t back up his claims with just boasts. He was truly a great black athlete as well. So when Ali bragged that he was “pretty”, he showed that the way he fought truly was a thing of beauty.

That same excellence and how it has been used to inspire the black community can be found in the phenomenal career of Michael Jordon. In the same way that Ali’s talent seemed to eclipse even the genre of boxing, Jordon was so phenomenal at basketball that he became an icon of excellence and skill and a role model for black youth across the country. Both of these men recognized that God had given them this tremendous talent and the opportunities to reach their potential. And they worked hard to be a role model to their community so others would be inspired to be their best as well.

Moreover, great black sports heroes also provided healing by setting a high standard of excellence for sports fans of all races to admire. It wasn’t just black sports fans who adored the work of Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordon. They became true heroes to anyone to whom sports was an important part of life.

Sports is an arena where men and woman can come to socialize and find common ground. Like entertainment, there is a world of sports that makes comrades of all who enjoy the exploits of sports heroes whether on the baseball diamond, the football field, the boxing arena or the basketball stadium. And sports fans have a standard that they value their heroes that is based on talent, achievement and ability to do that one thing everybody in sports admires – to be a winner. And Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordon were certainly embodiment of great black men who were also in every way winners. And we all admire that regardless of race, color or creed.

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Martin Luther King, Jr.

When you sit back and take in the phenomenal achievements of black history, it is natural to be moved to admiration by some of the great figures of black history including Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and many more. But one name stands head and shoulders above the rest and that is the name Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s legacy of change and his call for the end of racism and segregation in American society is without question the voice that has moved America as no other has done. For while many have showed tremendous leadership, Dr. King clearly demonstrated a vision for the future of America in which black and white worked, lived, played and worshipped together as one society not two.

The honor and reverence all American’s have for Martin Luther King, Jr. is evident in how honored his name has become since his tragic death at the assassins hand in 1968. All around this nation, virtually every U.S. city has named a major road after the great civil rights leader. He singularly has a U.S. holiday named after him, an honor usually reserved for presidents. He has been honored on the U.S. stamp and no school child gets through his or her elementary education without knowing the key phrases from Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

Dr. King’s career in civil rights is inseparable from the early struggles of the civil rights movement from the late fifties going forward. Our images of him walking side by side with his people unifying them behind his leadership and facing tremendous hatred and racial bigotry to take a stand in America to say without compromise that racism would not stand in this country any more.

Those images of Dr. King working and marching with others who shared his courage to step out and make a change for the better are indelible on the American consciousness. For Dr. King was not a leader who sent his messages from the safety and comfort of a far away office. No, he was there, in the midst of his people, marching on Washington arm in arm with the everyday men and women of this country who banded together to fight the evils of racism. It took tremendous courage for Dr. King to take to the streets with his people like he did and it was a risk that eventually cost him his life. But his courage inspired thousands to be courageous too and be one people, one brotherhood who would no longer allow racism to be the rule of law in America.

Dr. King’s famous speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August 28, 1963 has become so central to our American heritage that it is quoted with reverence by scholars, students and all people seeking their own inspiration from this great man. This speech ranks with Kennedy’s inaugural speech and the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as words that have inspired this nation as none other have been able to do. It is impossible not to get goose bumps reading these key phrases from that historic speech.

* I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”
* “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
* “Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

When reading Dr. King’s prophetic words to us all, his ideas become our ideas and we all become challenged to make his dream come to life. And that is what is truly the definition of a great leader.

Laughter That Heals

The great thing about the history of black America and the methods African American leadership has used to seek full equality and acceptance in this country is that there have been many roads to that goal. Yes, the great social, political, legal and even military movements that have been conducted to free African Americans from slavery and achieve full citizenship were crucial. And the great black leadership of dynamic personalities like Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver have made things possible that would never have been possible otherwise.

But not all of the gains in society have been achieved through tears and anger. In fact, some great black leadership can be found in a place one never would think to look. It can be found in the stand up comedy night clubs and on forward thinking television shows as black comedians helped everybody, black and white, laugh together at the differences in the races rather than cry separately.

Some of the most revered figures in comedy in the last thirty years were from the African American community. There are many notable names that spring immediately to mind that have used the “podium” of a comedy microphone and stage to talk about issues of race, color, discrimination and race relations in a way that all can appreciate their thoughts and achieve a common understanding. The names of Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and many more stand out as both very funny entertainers and people who have represented the African American community with pride and intelligence that all can admire.

Many an African American child took hope from the idea of rising up out of poverty and difficulty to reach greatness because they saw these black entertainers do it. Just by using their success to show the youth of black America that they too can be successful and that with hard work, intelligence, and the willingness to try they too can be somebody to their families and to their community. This is truly the role of a great role model and these men have given much hope to youth to make something of themselves and make a difference.

Sometimes it was hard for these entertainers to achieve equality. When Sammy Davis Junior first was recruited to make his valuable contribution to Frank Sinatra’s team, many in that society did not think it was appropriate that a black man could perform with equality with his white contemporaries. We can be grateful too for the openness of others in the entertainment community that they would not stand to see racism keep talent such as Sammy’s down. It was Sinatra himself that made sure that Sammy Davis could perform with the “Rat Pack” and in doing so, another door of racism was blown down in this country.

Stories like this are frequent. The Hollywood establishment always has been forward thinking in presenting entertainers based on their talent and not on the color of their skin or other artificial divisions. It has been television as well that has broken barriers and open the discussion of race and color for all of us to engage. By making it “ok” to talk about race relations, it also makes it ok to see those relations healed and clear the way for reconciliation and healing.

Many times when a black comedian is making his crowd laugh, he might say “the important thing is we talk about these things and laugh about them together”. And that is the important thing. We can be grateful we have had such outstanding leadership in entertainment to bring black and white together in a way that eliminates hatred and hostility. Because it is hard to hate your brother when you are busy laughing together with him.

Jackie Robinson

There are a lot of “firsts” in the long history of African Americans in this country. And with each one, a new plateau of equality and acceptance was achieved. But it can also be said without exception that each one came at a price for the brave people who fought hard to improve the lives of their people and achieve that great breakthrough in their chosen field.

These principles are certainly true in the arena of sports and especially baseball. Baseball has long been considered the great American pastime. So on April 15th, 1947 when Jackie Robinson walked out onto the field to be the first black to shatter the color barrier in professional baseball in a game between his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves, he was making a dramatic statement.

But this was no day of parades and celebration for Robinson. As is the case in so many great events in black history, that was time of tremendous racism, prejudice and discrimination against African Americans. Jackie Robinson was an extraordinary baseball player. In his first year alone he played 151 games, led the league in his base stealing ability and was awarded with the first rookie of the year award ever given. While Jackie played with the Dodgers, they went to the World Series six times and he played in six all star games as well. He was a solid performer and a tremendous benefit to his team for which he won the most valuable player award in 1949 and helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955.

As is often the case, it took some brave leadership from supporters outside of the African American community to see to it that prejudice would not keep a brilliant career such as Jackie Robinsons from reaching its true potential. When some of the Brooklyn Dodger players refused to sit next to Jackie Robinson and showed other hostile attitudes towards him because of his race, management stood firm that if they could not become a team with all members of the club, they were welcome to go play baseball elsewhere.

But one of the most emotional and heart warming moments that has become a shining example of the fall of racial bigotry in this country came in a game in Cincinnati Ohio in Robinson’s rookie year. As the fans at the game began to heckle and shout racial slurs at Robinson, one of his fellow Dodger’s, Pee Wee Reese, took a stand to bring this kind of behavior to a stop. His statement that racism would no longer rule in baseball was simple and elegant. As fans shouted their hateful remarks, Reese walked out on the field and put his arm around Jackie Robinson clearly communicating that this man was a teammate and a valued ball player on that team. The taunts ended abruptly and Reese and Robinson went on to do what they came to that game to do, play outstanding baseball.

Jackie himself never made his baseball career about race. He chose to demonstrate dramatically what Dr. Martin Luther King later described when he said that the day must come when we judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. Jackie Robinson made his stand for equality by showing that at the heart of his character was a superior baseball player and a valued member of the baseball community.

Even when Robinson spoke of his days pioneering baseball for other African Americans, his words demonstrated that he only wanted the chance to be tested fairly along side all other athletes, no more and no less. His simple statements really summarized so much of what the civil rights movement was all about when he said, “You can hate a man for many reasons, color is not one of them.” And later in his career he stated it again beautifully when he said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

This emphasis on the individual, on the quality of all men and all Americans and their right to be judged for who they are as people, not subjected to prejudice as African Americans is a perfect summation of the struggle of African Americans everywhere.

Harriet Tubman

Sometimes when we think of legionary outlaws who gave their life efforts to help a downtrodden and oppressed people, figures like Robin Hood or some other dashing male hero springs to mind. In black history, we have just such a character but this champion of her people did not ride the forests with merry men. Harriet Tubman, a humble and diminutive black woman truly qualifies as such a profoundly legendary figure that her exploits would rival Robin Hood’s or any other hero of cultural legend. Small wonder she was often referred to as “Moses of her People.”

Harriett Tubman was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland to a slave family of the estate of Anthony Thompson. During her slave years, she endured many hardships and harsh treatment which left her with scars and even as susceptibility to epileptic seizures that resulted from a head injury. It was common for slaves to change hands and that was part of Harriet’s life as well. Finally in 1849, she ran away to freedom but she by far did not run away from her people.

Over the next few years Harriet Tubman became a true warrior for the salvation of her people who were locked in slavery. Harriet didn’t just find a safe place and count her blessings for making it to freedom. She saw the need for the Underground Railroad in the salvation of hundreds more like her and it became her life’s mission to maintain the regional stations of that railroad for as long as it took to give liberty to all who had the courage to flee slavery via that resource.

Harriet Tubman showed the kind of courage, resourcefulness and intellect that a field general for any army would be proud to boast. All totaled Tubmen lead thirteen separate missions to bring African Americans to freedom along the Underground Railroad. That means that she personally lead over seventy slaves to freedom and had a direct influence on the freeing of at least that many more. And by keeping the Underground Railroad operational and out of the reach of slave hunters and authorities who sought to shut it down, she indirectly was influential in the salvation of hundreds, perhaps thousands more. Who can say how many prosperous and influential black families in this country today owe the lives of their ancestors and the success they have achieved since those dark days to the brave work of Harriet Tubman.

When Civil War came, Harriet didn’t retire satisfied that she had done her work for her people. She continued to work tirelessly for abolitionist movements and to do her part for the war effort. She became one of the first ever female spies for the North during the war and her military abilities were so well developed that she actually was put in a position of leadership to command the raid on Combahee Ferry in 1863.

After the Civil War was over, Harriet Tubman continued her work on behalf of abolitionist movements and for women’s rights until she retired to write her memoirs. Her contribution during this crucial time in black history was so revered that the US Postal Service honored her with a stamp in 1978.

There have been many heroes and heroines in the long uphill struggle for liberation, freedom and equality for African Americans in this country. During this brutal time when Harriet Tubman stood in the gap for her people, the plight of black Americans was as much life and death as any other time in history. Small wonder her name is revered as one of the icons of the fight for freedom prior to the Civil War. And small wonder she was referred to as Moses to Her People and will be remembered in that way for generations to come.

George Washington Carver

There is leadership that talks and there is leadership that works and in the hall of fame of great black leaders over the decades, George Washington Carver was a leader that worked. His leadership was not the kind that tried to capture publicity or make great fame for himself. He didn’t try to start a movement or achieve change through violence or confrontation, although those things are sometimes necessary.

Instead George Washington Carver showed leadership by making contributions to the welfare of his people that would last a lifetime. His selfless spirit is an inspiration to all peoples of any race, creed or color.

George Washington Carver is probably best known for his discoveries in the use of the peanut. And while it’s true that Carver was credited with over 300 discoveries to find new uses for the common peanut, his innovations did not end there. He continued his research to find important uses for other common agricultural products such as the sweet potato, pecans and soybeans.

George Washington Carver truly took the hands of his people where they were at the time and lead them forward to a better life. And where the black community was in the nineteenth century was agriculture. This was where a black family looked for their food, their living and their opportunity to better themselves. And that is what George Washington Carver made possible.

He was in every way a self made man, setting out at a young age to attain a better education for himself, he set an example to all that education was the path to freedom for his people and for all people. He truly had to struggle to achieve his success as he worked his way up through high school and then at Simpson Collage in Iowa where he was the first and only black student and then on to Iowa Agricultural College.

His success at Iowa Agricultural College came from determination and his ability to use his natural genius to succeed against all odds. But his breakthroughs were nothing short of revolutionary introducing such ideas as crop rotation to southern agriculture that revolutionized how farming could be done and gave his people the chance to become genuinely profitable in their daily work.

As he found success in his private career, he never used his discoveries to gather wealth of fame for himself. Instead he wanted his work to benefit his people and all of mankind. He was quotes as saying concerning his talents, “God gave them to me. How can I sell them to someone else?”

These were not just idle words that he spoke because he lived that philosophy evidenced by when he donated his life savings to start the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee to make sure that an institution existed to continue his important work in agriculture. Small wonder that the fitting remembrance that was etched on his grave read “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

The legacy of George Washington Carver would be one that set the standard high for black leadership in decades to come. It was a legacy of servant leadership, of concern for his people and for making genuine contributions to improving what was really important, the living standard and well being for all African Americans, not just the fortunate few. He is truly an inspiration for all of us who look at the struggle the black community has endured over the centuries and a figure to celebrate as a bright and shining leader in black history.

Equal Opportunity Legislation with Some Teeth

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy set the stage for the passage of civil rights legislation that made meaningful change when he stated in a speech he was seeking…”the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves.” And despite his tragic assignation, that leadership set the wheels in motion for one of the most important pieces of legislation that the United States government has ever passed to protect the civil rights of African Americans. That legislation was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

This bill represented the culmination of a decades if not century’s long struggle to achieve true civil rights for African Americans in the USA. President Kennedy saw this as the chance to put some real teeth into the law to give it the power to really change the way the country worked, played and lived together. It was a powerful continuation of the work that was started with The Civil Rights Act of 1875 but with much more enforceability combined with language that made it contemporary in an era of the expanding civil rights movement.

The bill was broad sweeping the scope of areas of civil life in this country to be impacted by restrictions against discrimination. The five “titles” of the bill cover may needed social changes including…

Title I – Banned discriminatory voter registration practices that were used to try to deny black people the right to vote.
Title II – Made it illegal to discriminate in public venues such as restaurants, theaters or hotels based on race.
Title III – Banned discrimination from public facilities such as government services or schools.
Title IV – Enforcement of desegregation of public schools
Title V – Made it illegal to discriminate in the workplace including race based hiring practices.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 touched on virtually every aspect of public life in America from schools to the work place even to public gatherings such as entertainment and eating establishments. In every way that Americans gathered together as a people, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination against African Americans in that setting.

But there are other important steps forward for civil rights that were an important part of the development of this bill. The bill did not just address civil rights for African Americans and in fact, it does not address that population directly at all. Instead the bill protects the civil rights for all minority groups. As such this made the struggle for equality that the African American community had been involved with ever since the Civil War everyman’s struggle for equality and it made all Americans brothers in seeking equal opportunity and treatment for all who are citizens of this great country.

In approaching the bill in this way, Congress forged some powerful allies for the African American cause and put legislation in place to begin to positively view the emerging movement for equal rights for women which was just as much in need of correction and support to see that woman’s rights became the law of the land too. Again, this built a strong alliance between these movements which added “clout” not only to the bill to make sure it made it through congress but it gave “clout” to those who were charged with enforcement of this important legislation.

You have to admire the courage of the leadership of this country for taking a stand on behalf of equal rights in putting this bill into effect. We especially add our admiration to the work of President Kennedy and then President Johnson who did not let the Kennedy assignation damage the chances that this bill would become law. For President Johnson, putting the muscle of the presidency behind this bill gave it the power to push past objections and become the law of the land.

Many say that this one political stand he took destroyed Johnson’s chances to be reelected because of the animosity it caused in the south toward him. But President Johnson did what all presidents should do. He saw the good of the country and of the society as more important than his own political ambitions and he defied the danger to make sure equal rights for African Americans and all Americans became the law. We need that kind of leadership today and in ever generation of leaders of this nation so we always seek the common good in the laws we see passed by our government.