Happy Black History Month! For Black History Month this year, the Association of African American History and Life (ASALH) asks everybody to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a groundbreaking Black studies scholar who authored The Miseducation of the Negro and amassed an archive of primary sources that is now housed at the Library of Congress, founded ASALH. An abolitionist of American ignorance about Black history and the son of emancipated slaves, Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926, which spanned between Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays. After the successes of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the week expanded into Black History Month in 1976.
The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the success of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom both resulted from the work of activists who had an abolitionist mindset. The transatlantic slavery abolitionists built the first international multiracial social movement. The word “abolition” reflects these activists’ unwillingness to believe that the gruesome economic exploitation, objectification and rights deprivation that is slavery could be made kinder, gentler and therefore acceptable. 100 years later, the Civil Rights Movement exploded into the national and international consciousness after decades of advocacy that rejected the idea that so-called “social segregation” could continue in a democracy.
We will never know many of the names of the people who participated in these movements. Visionary radicals for their times, these everyday people sought to address what they believed were the root causes of the human suffering caused by racial injustice and economic inequality. They persevered in spite of arguments by the conservative and the ambivalent that their proposed solutions were too expensive, too inconvenient and too idealistic.
Abolitionists of the 19th and 20th century such as Harriet Tubman, Bayard Rustin and Viola Liuzzo saw clearly that, in fact, it is systems of oppression that are simply too expensive in terms of their human and material costs to sustain. Settling for a bit of democracy, a piece of freedom and a morsel of justice is an absurd proposed solution for social problems.
More than a few abolitionists were imprisoned, driven underground and murdered because of their activism. Today, decision makers celebrate our predecessors’ historical sacrifices while they support policies and practices that limit freedom and social justice in our contemporary communities aspirations.
21st century abolitionists are already working to close down prisons, expand access to health care and education, increase funding for the arts as well as end the violence and joblessness that is crippling the hope of our youth. This Black History Month, I’m going to embrace the abolitionist mindset and 1) decide which problem I’d like to see finally solved in my community; 2) attend an event sponsored by people in my community who are already working on that problem and 3) do just one thing to support the work of the people I meet. I hope you’ll join me in honoring the activists who created the more just and emancipated democracy in which we now live by taking these three small steps.
With minds wide open to the possibility of change, we can do more than simply challenge racial injustice. We can abolish it.
Yours in Solidarity,
Robin J. Hayes, PhD
Principal Organizer, Progressive Pupil
PS We’d love to hear about your plans to embrace the abolitionist mindset. Your small steps will help create a path for others to follow!