Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Black History Month

February is Black History month. Every year I hear people (white and black) ask why we need to have a month dedicated to black history. The reason is over-determined, in other words, there are multiple causes or contributing factors to the need for this specifically dedicated time. Let me name some of them.

For more than 200 years black history was little more than a footnote in American history books. Long after black people were freed from slavery, they continued to occupy a subservient role in the mainstream of culture. They were invisible. Those whose interests were served by slavery and segregation either ignored or purposely obscured the culture, achievements and history of black people. Those who own the land and the economic resources also own the pen and paper and the privilege of writing history.

When I finished high school in 1948 my only understanding of black history was a vague acquaintance with Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. I was taught by the omission of blacks from history and by the political and social leaders of my childhood and youth that blacks were not only not educated, but that they were not educable. Since I never met an educated black person and had no black classmates or teachers, the idea of blacks being uneducable was a logical conclusion in my limited experience.

It was in late 1954 or early 1955 that I had an experience that brought all of my teachings and assumptions regarding black people into question. By a unique turn of events too complicated to describe here, I had the occasion to spend the day with a young black minister who had just been called to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Until that day I had never met a black person with anything more than a elemental, usually informal, education. I had met black people who were wise, but their wisdom was the fruit of experience and wisdom inherited from wise parents, pastors and teachers. I was ‘blown away' by the palpable erudition and gentle spirit of this man. He was completely at ease with these twelve white strangers, and he put us at ease with him. He had a graceful presence that I will never forget. Dr. King had an obvious degree of intelligence that belied all that I had been taught in the first 18 years of my life about the limited intelligence level of black people He did not fit into any of the preconceived categories of race that I had taken in with my mother's milk. This experience was one of my first steps toward the understanding of a social and political reality that would change our nation in the next 25 years.

I never had a black teacher or classmate in elementary school, high school, in 4 years of college or 3 years in theological school at Emory University. I had my first black classmate when I entered graduate school at Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, Illinois. My first and only black teacher was my clinical training supervisor when I did a year long internship as a chaplain at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.. Today, at the age of 80 (almost), I am still learning black history that I should have learned in my formative years.

A few years ago one of my clergy friends told of sitting behind an African-American family of four while watching the film "Mississippi Burning". When that awful scene of the killing of 4 young men near Philadelphia, Mississippi, came on the screen, one of the young African-American children said aloud: "Daddy, that didn't really happen, did it?"

A few months ago, my 40-something year old daughter was reading the novel, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, in which the cruel and unfeeling treatment of black household helpers was featured. She called me and asked: "Daddy, that didn't really happen, did it?"

All history is important in the education of those who would learn from the past. Any category of history ignored or unlearned or forgotten leaves a blind spot in our grasp of reality. And, black history is one that many young people either forgot or never learned. Any dark history needs to be taught before it can be properly processed, forgiven and then forgotten. There are those who say that we should forgive and forget the past so we may move on to a more enlightened future. We cannot forgive or be forgiven a dark history about which we do not know. It is essential to learn and remember before we can rightfully move on. This is true for those of us who are black, white or any other color or culture. We do need to learn that "it really did happen".

In his book Man's Unconquerable Mind, historian and philosopher Gilbert Highet gives us a good closing thought. He wrote: "People who know no history always learn wrong history and can never understand the passing moment as it changes into history. Yet sometimes it is difficult to convince young people of this, difficult even to explain to parents and to school supervisors". (Pg 78)

There is more. What I have written in this brief column is merely indicative of a larger reality that begs to be understood.