A Black History Perspective for 111 Million Americans

Step back in time for a minute. Recall, if you can, where you were in 1961, or what you have learned about the early 1960s.

It was 50 years ago, and the Civil Rights Movement was just gaining momentum.

In May that year, the Congress on Racial Equality -- CORE -- organized what it called the Freedom Ride, a bus trip from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. The idea was to test the South's compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that ordered the desegregation of all interstate transportation facilities, including terminals.

The Freedom Ride proceeded peacefully through Virginia and North Carolina, but met with violence in Rock Hill, South Carolina, then was firebombed in Anniston, Alabama. The freedom riders -- white as well as black -- were beaten and bloodied by a mob unrestrained by local law enforcement.

If you are 50 or younger, you are among more than 111 million Americans -- one-third of our current population -- who either were infants during the Civil Rights Movement
or were born after it.

For these 111 million Americans, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was never a living, breathing person. He's only a famous American whose memory is honored each year.

And the historic moments of the period?

The ugly scene at Little Rock Central High when federally-authorized troops protected nine black students as they tried to attend the all-white school...

The year-long Montgomery bus boycott, begun when Rosa Parks refused to move to a seat farther back in the city bus she was riding...

All those "colored" drinking fountains and "whites only" lunch counters...

Birmingham's Bull Connor with his blistering fire hoses and snarling police dogs...

And the heinous assaults on the Freedom Rides...

ALL occurred before these Americans could know they happened.

The realization that generations of Americans have no first-hand connection with the events of one of the most pivotal periods in our nation's history dawned on me a couple of years ago, as I researched a biography of the most famous African American football coach of all time, Grambling State University's Eddie Robinson.

I think this gap is a particularly important point for reflection during Black History Month.

Eddie Robinson coached at Grambling for 57 years, from 1941 through 1997, won 408 games and made Grambling a nationally recognized name.

His career spanned decades of Jim Crow segregation and every important moment of the Civil Rights Movement.

During that time he sent more than 200 players into pro football, beginning when teams in the National Football League wouldn't give players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities a chance to prove themselves, when major universities across the South -- and their football teams -- were rigidly all-white, and the mainstream white press ignored black football competition.

Most importantly, he set an example of unwavering patriotism and belief in America as "the greatest country in the world," and demanded that his young people prepare for the better future he was sure would come by getting an education and learning to work hard and do a good job.

When Robinson died in 2007, then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana summed up his impact this way:

"Whether you walked with him in the journey toward equality, or were born into a generation befitting from his work, you share in (his) legacy . . .

"Over the years Coach Rob leveled the playing field, both in football and in life, for all of us."

Charlie Joiner, one of four former Grambling players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said of his coach:

"The man is a peerless legend. He's a legend not just in Louisiana, but all across America. He's one of the biggest legends in the black world - in black America - there ever has been."

Appreciating Eddie Robinson's historic accomplishments and contributions required putting them in the context of the era's attitudes, conditions and obstacles, which he overcame.

During my effort to learn more about this time of my own youth, I met Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University, and visited the sobering teaching lab he established at the school in Big Rapids, Michigan, named The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

I also discovered James G. Thompson, a cafeteria worker from Wichita, whose "Double-V" letter to the Pittsburgh Courier at the start of World War II fueled one of the early national campaigns for racial equality in segregated America.

Too few of us today know about Jim Crow or James G. Thompson.

I, for one, wondered just who Jim Crow was. I knew, of course, that the name stood for a racist way of life in the South for decades. But was Jim Crow a prejudiced Southern politician? A judge? An influential plantation owner?

Turns out he was the character in a mirthful ditty sung by an old, disabled slave, whose antics were turned into a very popular vaudeville act by a black-face minstrel named Daddy Rice in the 1840s. Eventually, the namesake of Jump Jim Crow morphed into the embodiment of laws and customs that enforced rigid racial discrimination in the South.

As for James G. Thompson, I had never heard of him. He wrote his letter to the Courier, one of the nation's leading black newspapers, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The full letter, too long to quote here, appears in Eddie Robinson "...he was the Martin Luther King of football." The heart of Thompson's message, though, is contained in these paragraphs:

"The 'V for Victory' sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny.

"If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict, then let colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory...

"The first V for a victory over enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies within. For surely, those who perpetrate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.... "

The Courier turned Thompson's "Double V" idea into a nationwide campaign during World War II, and so upset the War Department that the newspaper eventually was banned from military bases for the duration, lest it incite dissension and division within the ranks.

Almost 70 years after James Thompson wrote his letter...

Nearly 50 years after the last major event of the Civil Rights Movement in the South...

And approaching 15 years since Eddie Robinson coached his 588th and final game at Grambling...

Americans of all ages and races -- but especially those 111 million who've come along in the past 50 years or so -- need to be reminded of just how far this nation has come, and to hear about the landmark moments along the journey that brought us this far.

I think that's an essential part of Black History Month, a contemporary point that seems to get lost sometimes in the annual "observances"- - as many as there are.