Black History Month still worth observing

Friday, February 16, 2007

I have a special place in my heart for real-life examples of individuals who, in the face of great adversity, rise above their circumstances to achieve greatness. With February being Black History Month, there will undoubtedly be several short biographies published in newspapers and magazines of black individuals who did just that. One of my all time favorites concerns an individual everyone knows, but few realize the failures that he overcame. He personally embodies that desirable personality characteristic we term perseverance. From the following short list of personal failures (sprinkled with a few successes), can you guess the identity of this man?

Born in poverty and possessing very little education, he failed in business at age 22. One year later he decided to run for public office in his state legislature but was defeated. Returning to business the next year, he failed again. He did manage to get elected to the legislature at age 25, but the very next year his sweetheart died, and he suffered a nervous breakdown the following year. He subsequently was defeated for Speaker of the House at age 28; defeated for Elector at age 31; and defeated for Congress at age 34. Not giving up he was finally elected to Congress at the age of 37. Two years later he lost his bid for re-election; was defeated for the Senate at age 46; defeated for Vice President at age 47; and defeated for the Senate again at age 49. Who is this individual? He was elected President at the age of 51, and his name was Abraham Lincoln.

The credit for that short list of "mainly failures" goes to David Motil. Some will claim that it is skewed by not listing other lesser successes in Abraham Lincoln's life, but it does illustrate the "never give up" attitude of overcoming adversity. This 16th President of the United States guided our divided nation through a horrendous Civil War, kept the United States "United," and freed the black slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation of Sept. 22, 1862.

February 22 (Monday) is celebrated as Lincoln's birthday, and many people regard Lincoln as the greatest President our country has ever seen. You certainly wouldn't have known it at the time judging by how the media often portrayed the man. After giving a short speech in 1863, the Chicago Times printed this evaluation: "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States." That quote, for some odd reason, reminds me of the public perception of our current President. Other newspapers called that speech a "mawkish harangue" full of "silly remarks." The Harrisburg Patriot and Union printed the following statement: "We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the Nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of." What's the name of that short speech? It was the Gettysburg Address, now widely regarded as one of the finest examples of speeches ever penned or spoken. I suspect hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have memorized that speech.

It continually surprises me that so many people claim that racist attitudes towards blacks no longer exist in this country. In regard to everyone having an equal opportunity to succeed in education and employment that statement might be getting close to the truth. In regard to the social environment, however, it's a very long ways from the truth. How many "good 'ole boys clubs" do you know of that are segregated? How about golfing partners, tail-gate parties for your favorite team, and hunting buddies? Would you welcome that black family that just bought the house next-door to yours? If your church was in need of a music minister or assistant pastor, would a black applicant stand a snowball's chance in, well, a very hot place? Churches by-and-large remain one of the most rigidly enforced by social norm institutions of segregation in America. Then of course there is the ultimate "reality check" --- if your teenager decided to go out on a date with another teenager of different color, what would your reaction be? Everyone claims to be free of racist attitudes until you get down to the nitty-gritty specifics.

If you really believe the Bible is true and there really is an after-life in a place called "heaven," then perhaps we should consider the fact that heaven will be populated by "every tribe and language and people and nation" worshipping God together (Revelations 5:9). When you finally make it there, will you be asking the nearest angel to guide you to the "white section"? Maybe it's better to overcome the obstacle of racial intolerance down her than get shocked up there. We've still have a ways to go regarding racism, and Black History Month is still worth observing.

Stephen Rowland is a former resident of Lew-isburg who is working on a master's degree in biblical literature.