8 Things to Consider for Black History Month

By Brigid Darragh

The Association for the Study of African American Life and History has selected Civil Rights in America as this year’s theme to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Signed into law on July 2, 1964, by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Civil Rights Act outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national, and religious minorities and women. It made illegal the unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace, and by public facilities.

Fifty years following the signing of this landmark piece of legislation into law, what should we be thinking and talking about this month?

Kaye Whitehead, Ph.D., offers some topics to consider.

Whitehead is an assistant professor of communication and African and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland.

She is also a historian and Master Teacher in African American History, and a three-time New York Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker.

Her new book, Sparking the Genius, expands on a lecture about Carter G. Woodson’s 1933 work, The Mis-Education of the Negro, which challenged readers to think about the importance of sparking the genius in young people in a world where obstacles for race, gender, and religion still prohibit people from becoming who and all they might be.

This month, Whitehead will be giving talks at several universities and conferences around the country on Black history, contemporary issues, and Sparking the Genius, which hit bookstore shelves last week.

She will be discussing the following in her classes and on public radio during Black History Month.

The 50th anniversaries of:

1. Freedom Summer

Also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, Freedom Summer was a campaign launched in June 1964 with the goal to register as many African-American voters as possible in Mississippi, which had a history of excluding blacks from voting.

It was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of the Mississippi branches of the four major civil rights organizations (SNCC, CORE, NAACP and SCLC).
The Mississippi Summer Project set up dozens of Freedom Schools, Freedom Houses, and community centers in small towns throughout the state to aid African Americans.

2. The deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman


Three American civil rights workers were killed by members of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County’s Sheriff Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964, for their participation in Freedom Summer and helping blacks to register to vote.

Their murders sparked national outrage and a massive federal investigation; outrage over their deaths assisted in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

3. The founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) by Malcolm X

The goal of the OAAU was to fight for the human rights of African Americans and promote cooperation among Africans and people of African descent in the Americas. The OAAU also focused on voter registration, school boycotts, housing rehabilitation, rent strikes, and social programs for addicts, unwed mothers, and troubled children.

4. The Harlem Race Riots

Riots broke out in the Harlem section of New York City following the shooting of James Powell in July 1964. The incident set off six consecutive nights of rioting that affected the neighborhoods of Harlem and
Bedford-Stuyvesant. Four thousand people participated in the riots, vandalizing, looting, and attacking the New York City Police Department.

The Harlem Race Riot is said to be the precipitating event for riots that took place later that summer in Philadelphia, Rochester, Chicago, and in several cities in northern New Jersey.

5. The founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)

Created in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, the MFDP was organized by black and white Americans and sought to challenge the legitimacy of the white-only U.S Democratic Party.

6. Dr. King and the Nobel Peace Prize

Fifty years ago, at the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, Dr. King announced that he would give the prize money of $54,123 to the furthering of the civil rights movement.

As for contemporary black history issues, Whitehead will be discussing Black Twitter and the Classroom to Prison Pipeline.

7. Black Twitter is a modern trend that is changing the way people discuss and take action on current issues and events, one hashtag at a time. Defined as a “cultural identity” on the Twitter social network, it focuses on issues of interest to the black community.

“Black Twitter is a place where African Americans meet on social media to talk about an issue or share information. There’s a movement behind it, and some of the things that trend are really good and can make a change. It gets other things to trend that are of importance or relevance,” Whitehead says.

Black Twitter has gained momentum during such events as the George Zimmerman trial following the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in February, Fast Company’s list of the top 25 most influential females in business (in which not a single black woman was recognized), and Paula Deen’s racist comments on television, to name a few from 2013.

“It can be a very effective organizing tool because it’s used as a way to organize and talk about issues, and it can also have a revolutionary side,” says Whitehead.

What’s trending on Black Twitter now?

“A lot of black poetry. Also the notion of Black History Month versus BH365—shouldn’t we be celebrating year round?”

8. The Classroom to Prison Pipeline refers to the one million African American people who are currently incarcerated in the United States. According to a 2012 study, roughly 2.3 million people are in prison in the U.S.

“We are finding there are more and more students who get to high school, drop out at age 16, and end up in prison. They are not being pushed towards college or a trade,” Whitehead explains.

“In 2012, 84% of African American fourth graders were reading below grade level. The same year, 47% of African American males dropped out of high school at age 16. With those statistics in mind, where else are you going but prison? You can’t read, you can’t write, you don’t have the basic tools needed for a job,” Whitehead says.

Her book, Sparking the Genius, poses the challenge of sparking the genius in the young people around us: “How do we dismantle and disrupt this classroom to prison pipeline? How do we get young people studying and reading? How can we get students to have a better knapsack of all the things they need to succeed?”

Whitehead believes the key is to foster the ability for students to imagine themselves somewhere different, more than what they are now, better than current circumstances.

“If we can we get them to close their eyes and see where they want to be—and then open their eyes and make that happen—we can create change.”

Whitehead joins Marc Steiner on the Marc Steiner Show on Wednesday, February 5, to talk about these issues and more, and she will be blogging about Black History throughout the month on her website.

Her second book, Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, is due out in May.

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1 Comment

  • Posted by Janyce | February 4, 2014

    Thanks Dr. Kaye,

    You have provided the spark that I have been searching for to push the mentees at the P. A. L. center do see themselves in their future

    You are my reference and go to authority for getting the voice to help our young ladies “Dream Big”

    I have stepped up my efforts since hearing Harry Belafonte’s plea for us to do more.

    Janyce

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