The Triumph At The Berlin Olympics
There have been many truly memorable moments in black history where the blatant wrongness of racial discrimination has been dramatically put on display. The 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany may be one of the most dramatic because of what the madman wanted to happen and what really happened.
Hitler was pleased to host the Olympics because he felt it was a chance to put on display one of his core philosophical concepts which was the superiority of the Aryan race. Or to put it more bluntly, Hitler wanted to show the superiority of the white man on the Olympic fields. Looking back on his arrogance, and knowing what we do today, you wonder how he could have been so deeply wrong about something. But if he had never questioned that theory, he should have given it serious review after the Berlin Olympics.
Once again, it was a man whose name in black history has become one of great pride that turned the day for justice and equality. That man was Jessie Owens who came to those Olympics not to make a racial statement or start a movement but to do his best and show his pride as a black man, as an American and as an athlete. And that pride shown through as he won four gold metals and turned Hitler's hopes for an Aryan romp over the black man to dust.
Hitler's response was infantile and nauseating storming out of the stadium as Owens won event after event and then refusing to shake Jessie's hand when the time to award the metals came. But there is another side to this story that sheds another light on where we were in black history at that time. And that was the experience Jesse Owens had in Germany from the other athletes and from the German citizens who were warm and welcoming to him and treated him as the athletic hero he was as a result of his great accomplishments.
History tells us that during the long jump competition, Jesse's German competitor Lutz Long gave him advice and was friendly throughout the competition. As he continued to put on display his remarkable athletic ability, the German citizens, some 110,000 strong cheered him enthusiastically and eagerly asked him for his autograph when he was on the streets after the competition. In fact, Owens enjoyed equality that is common among athletes as he traveled with his fellow white athletes, ate with them and stayed in the same living accommodations with them, something that would have been out of the question in America at the time.
There are many lessons we can gather from Jesse's experience beyond that obvious that Hitler's ideas of Aryan supremacy were deeply wrong and offensive to all mankind, not just to the victims of discrimination. We see that even in a society that has become characterized as racist, such as Germany in the 1930's, the people, the common everyday folk of Germany had no room in their hearts for such racism that was being pushed upon them by their leadership. This can be a source of inspiration and hope for all of us and an encouragement not to prejudge a people who we might even perceive as being racists because many times the good people, the common everyday people will have nothing to do with such evil.
And we can celebrate this great victory in a very difficult circumstance in which it wasn't speeches that proved that race or color or creed don't make a man superior. Instead it is the talent, the integrity and the hard work of each individual that shows the quality that is from within. Jesse Owens demonstrated that even to the likes of Adolph Hitler. And we have that opportunity to demonstrate that same principle every day in our daily lives.
The history of the growth of equality for African Americans in America has been one of great accomplishments followed by many small gains and many set backs as well. The outlawing of slavery did not instantly make all blacks equal with whites in America. It took many subsequent legal actions as well as hundreds of social efforts, big and small, to slowly make the progress we have seen today. But even in this day and age, in a new century, there is an ongoing battle against racism. It seems we need leadership to guide society to true equality as much now as ever in our history.
The abolition of slavery only began the long hard struggle for African American culture to become a true part of what it means to be an American. That is because even though the legal definition of slavery had been thrown down, the attitudes and cultural systems in place to keep the races separate and to deny black people rights equal with whites had to be addressed one by one.
Slowly over the decades, we have seen big changes but many came at a great cost. From the legal granting of the right to vote to African Americans to the civil rights movement to school desegregation, each step forward came with resistance, great difficulty and significant sacrifice from leaders and ordinary citizens alike to make each step toward true equality a fact.
Of all the efforts to "level the playing field", none has been more controversial than the Affirmative Action program. In its beginning, it was intended to be a supplement to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over time it had become clear that despite removal of laws that enforced segregation or discrimination, there seemed to be a natural segregation in the work place that was keeping African Americans from getting a fair chance at jobs because of the prejudices of an employer, even if that prejudice was not officially recognized in the company charter.
There were two significant executive orders that made affirmative action a reality. The first was Executive Order 10925 signed by President Kennedy on March 6, 1965 which was the first law to make mention of the phrase. This was followed by much more sweeping Civil Rights Act which was signed into law by President Johnson. Together these laws attempted to correct by legal means the disparity of opportunity that existed in the workplace for people of color by instituting a system of quotas that employers had to meet to satisfy federal affirmative action minority employment levels.
But as is often the case when the government attempts to impose right attitudes via legislation, these laws often created as many problems for minorities as they cured. Nevertheless as the application of the quota systems began to become widespread, it did open many doors for African Americans that would not have opened due to racial prejudice and silent segregation that was keeping the African American community from reaching its economic potential.
In truth, nobody really liked this kind of imposed fairness system. For whites, they felt the sting of an artificial system of judgment that was sometimes called "reverse discrimination". While there was some justice that the white community got a taste for what it felt like to loose out on opportunity due to the color of your skin, it did not help the country in our goal of growing together to become one "color blind" community.
Affirmative action was a mixed blessing for the African American community. While it did its job in the short term to opening doors that were closed due to racism, it is not the ideal solution. That is because it did not fulfill Dr. King's vision of a world where a man is judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. We can hope that we will grow to that point as a culture and look back on affirmative action as an unfortunate but necessary provision to help us grow and mature as a truly integrated culture.
Jordon And Ali
Throughout black history, great black athletes have served as role models to America's youth, in a way that may not have been possible for others leaders. And to be sure, some of these great heroes of athletics have become virtually godlike to all sports fans, not just those in the black community. Michael Jordon's ability on the basketball field during his career at times seems to be virtually superhuman. And the career of Mohammed Ali sent such a powerful message of black pride to black and white America that he virtually transformed social perception of the black man through sheer talent and attitude.
Before Mohammed Ali came along, the idea of a black boxer, even a very good black boxer becoming such a central figure for black pride seemed unlikely. But Ali demonstrated something to the youth of the African American community that was so inspirational that it helped to transform their world view like no other public figure could have done.
With his swagger and braggadocio, Ali stood out as a proud black man in such a way that had never been seen before. His use of rhyme with such phrases as "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" to his self promotion maintaining "I'm pretty", that sent a message to black and white admirer alike. And that message was loud and clear. Ali was black and he was proud and other black men and women in America have just as much reason to be proud as he was.
This was an important message because coming out of years of oppression, it was sometimes difficult for black youth to gain a sense of pride and the self assurance needed to get out there and be a success. It took the work of great black role models such as Mohammed Ali to let them know that it is allowable for you to be proud and to be great as well. For Ali didn't back up his claims with just boasts. He was truly a great black athlete as well. So when Ali bragged that he was "pretty", he showed that the way he fought truly was a thing of beauty.
That same excellence and how it has been used to inspire the black community can be found in the phenomenal career of Michael Jordon. In the same way that Ali's talent seemed to eclipse even the genre of boxing, Jordon was so phenomenal at basketball that he became an icon of excellence and skill and a role model for black youth across the country. Both of these men recognized that God had given them this tremendous talent and the opportunities to reach their potential. And they worked hard to be a role model to their community so others would be inspired to be their best as well.
Moreover, great black sports heroes also provided healing by setting a high standard of excellence for sports fans of all races to admire. It wasn't just black sports fans who adored the work of Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordon. They became true heroes to anyone to whom sports was an important part of life.
Sports is an arena where men and woman can come to socialize and find common ground. Like entertainment, there is a world of sports that makes comrades of all who enjoy the exploits of sports heroes whether on the baseball diamond, the football field, the boxing arena or the basketball stadium. And sports fans have a standard that they value their heroes that is based on talent, achievement and ability to do that one thing everybody in sports admires - to be a winner. And Mohammed Ali and Michael Jordon were certainly embodiment of great black men who were also in every way winners. And we all admire that regardless of race, color or creed.
Booker T Washington
As you travel this great nation, it is no accident you will see a lot of schools given the name of Booker T. Washington. That is because this great black educator and leader set the standard and carved out a new path in the years right after the fall of slavery to lead his people to a better way. He showed his people a way of education, accomplishment, achievement and the prosperity that naturally comes with those goals.
In 1901, the biography of Booker T. Washington was published with the fitting title Up From Slavery. Washington's struggle to rise up from the limitations of a slave's life to be come one of the most respected black leaders in America is one of the reasons he is revered in black history as one of the greats who really made a difference for his people.
When Booker T. Washington's family was freed from slavery in Virginia, young Booker immediately began pursuing the path where he would make his mark, in education. Achieving success at Hampton University and then at Wayland Seminary, he was soon to pioneer new achievements for African Americans in higher education, becoming one of the first leaders of the Tuskegee University in Alabama.
But it was more than just academic success that marked Washington's career. He became prominent in many areas of leadership becoming a spokesperson for post slavery black America to the powerful and influential in this country. Book T. Washington lived the concept that the pen was mightier than the sword and was an early voice for moderation and learning to excel within the institutions and customs of America rather than deal in violence.
One of Washington's great strengths was finding partnership and coalitions between leaders of many communities to improve the opportunities for education and excellence for the African American community of the time. One of the most influential speeches of black history was given by Washington and became known as the Atlanta Address of 1895 in which Washington, speaking to a largely white audience instigated a profound change in way economic opportunity and hiring was done in America at its time. In that one speech he...
*Called up on the black community to become part of the economy and industry of America thus beginning the healing process that was so necessary at the time.
*Stated without reservation that the south was the region of the country where there were the greatest opportunities for black employment. By bringing together the strong black labor force with an economy in the midst of recovery from the civil war, Washington may have been one of the chief architects for the recovery of the south from the ravages of that war.
*Introduced to the economic institutions predominantly run by the white citizens of the country that it made more sense to take advantage of the large resident black population for reliable workers than to look to immigrants. The outcome was a boom in employment for the black community that was a huge leap forward in the struggle to rise up out of slavery.
The Atlanta Address of 1895 propelled Booker T. Washington into national prominence becoming a healing voice and a powerful catalyst for change in this country. Using his sophisticated network of supporters from every arena of leadership including political, academic and business leaders, Washington worked tirelessly to provide hope and new opportunities for black families trying to make their way in America.
His work ethic was profound and produced change at a rate that was phenomenal by any standard. But it took a toll on Washington who died relatively young, at the age of 59 from exhaustion and overwork. But this too points out the tremendous drive and devotion this important black leader had to use all of his talents, his intellect and his contacts to better the lives of black people and speed the road to acceptance and integration across America. We all owe a Booker T. Washington a great deal of gratitude for being "the man of the hour" to lead all people forward, black and white, to find ways to work together in partnership rather than with distrust or violence to achieve a better America for everyone.
There are a lot of "firsts" in the long history of African Americans in this country. And with each one, a new plateau of equality and acceptance was achieved. But it can also be said without exception that each one came at a price for the brave people who fought hard to improve the lives of their people and achieve that great breakthrough in their chosen field.
These principles are certainly true in the arena of sports and especially baseball. Baseball has long been considered the great American pastime. So on April 15th, 1947 when Jackie Robinson walked out onto the field to be the first black to shatter the color barrier in professional baseball in a game between his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves, he was making a dramatic statement.
But this was no day of parades and celebration for Robinson. As is the case in so many great events in black history, that was time of tremendous racism, prejudice and discrimination against African Americans. Jackie Robinson was an extraordinary baseball player. In his first year alone he played 151 games, led the league in his base stealing ability and was awarded with the first rookie of the year award ever given. While Jackie played with the Dodgers, they went to the World Series six times and he played in six all star games as well. He was a solid performer and a tremendous benefit to his team for which he won the most valuable player award in 1949 and helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955.
As is often the case, it took some brave leadership from supporters outside of the African American community to see to it that prejudice would not keep a brilliant career such as Jackie Robinsons from reaching its true potential. When some of the Brooklyn Dodger players refused to sit next to Jackie Robinson and showed other hostile attitudes towards him because of his race, management stood firm that if they could not become a team with all members of the club, they were welcome to go play baseball elsewhere.
But one of the most emotional and heart warming moments that has become a shining example of the fall of racial bigotry in this country came in a game in Cincinnati Ohio in Robinson's rookie year. As the fans at the game began to heckle and shout racial slurs at Robinson, one of his fellow Dodger's, Pee Wee Reese, took a stand to bring this kind of behavior to a stop. His statement that racism would no longer rule in baseball was simple and elegant. As fans shouted their hateful remarks, Reese walked out on the field and put his arm around Jackie Robinson clearly communicating that this man was a teammate and a valued ball player on that team. The taunts ended abruptly and Reese and Robinson went on to do what they came to that game to do, play outstanding baseball.
Jackie himself never made his baseball career about race. He chose to demonstrate dramatically what Dr. Martin Luther King later described when he said that the day must come when we judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character. Jackie Robinson made his stand for equality by showing that at the heart of his character was a superior baseball player and a valued member of the baseball community.
Even when Robinson spoke of his days pioneering baseball for other African Americans, his words demonstrated that he only wanted the chance to be tested fairly along side all other athletes, no more and no less. His simple statements really summarized so much of what the civil rights movement was all about when he said, "You can hate a man for many reasons, color is not one of them." And later in his career he stated it again beautifully when he said, "I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me... all I ask is that you respect me as a human being."
This emphasis on the individual, on the quality of all men and all Americans and their right to be judged for who they are as people, not subjected to prejudice as African Americans is a perfect summation of the struggle of African Americans everywhere.
The Halls Of Power
Black history has been a progressive climb from without the lowest echelons of society during slavery to the highest. When you think of black history, we often think of the civil rights movement, of John Brown's violent protests, of the Underground Railroad. But black history doesn't end with any one event. It is always in the process of being made every day.
Even in the last ten years, huge steps forward have been made at the very top governmental positions by notable and highly qualified black Americans who are making all of us proud in the contributions they are making to America. Colin Powell was an accomplished general who demonstrated with quiet dignity and authority that he could lead many men into battle. He was rewarded for his valiant efforts finally reaching the very top levels of the government serving as President Bush's Secretary of State in his first administration. Throughout the halls of government and anywhere Secretary Powell served, he was treated with respect and the honor that he deserved for serving his country so well.
Following the honorable service of Colin Powell a just as distinguished public servant, a black woman by the name of Condoleezza Rice. It was a proud day when she stepped into that office showing how far America had come from the days when blacks could not eat in the same restaurants as whites or drink from the same drinking fountains. And her service has been just as distinguished, meeting with heads of state from Africa to Europe to the Middle East to South America and making great accomplishments throughout her career.
These two black Americans are true examples of Doctor King's vision of people who were recognized not for the color of their skin but the content of their character. Their excellence as leaders and their amazing resume's they brought to their jobs provide tremendous inspiration to black boys and girls in school that they too can rise up in this society and go as far as they want to go if they let their natural gifts and skills come to the surface. They do not need a government program or special help to succeed. America has far to go but Dr. Rice and General Powell are examples that the system can reward black people of excellence and will not over look the contributions they can make to America's future.
And now we are on that part of black history that is yet to be. The future is a part of black history yet to be written. And we witness another black leader of excellence preparing to be considered for the very top position of power in the country, perhaps in the world, the presidency of the United States. And as with General Powell and Dr. Rice, Barrack Obama will not be judged as a black man or in the context of the racial struggle in this country. Already he is being admired and praised for his leadership, his eloquence and his ability to bring new vision to this country. It is a day of pride for all of black America to see Barrack Obama be considered for this position. He will have to work hard and be judged on his talents, skills, experience and ability to lead. But it's a testimony to how far the country has come that he has just as much of a chance to win that election as any other candidate. And if he wins he will knock down one more barrier to black people and throughout African American society, children will be able to say, there is nothing I cannot do if I try hard. And that is the vision every civil right leader since the civil war has wanted for blacks in America.
Brown Versus The Board Of Education
In 1951, thirteen families in the small community of Topeka, Kansas got together to do something about an unjust situation. The board of education of their community was allowing racial segregation in the school system based on an out of date 1879 law. The leader of this group of concerned parents was Oliver J. Brown and the outcome of what started out as a few parents trying to make life better for their children became one of the most infamous and influential supreme court cases in history known as Brown versus the Board of Education.
The practice of school segregation had become a common and accepted practice in American society despite many movements in the history of civil rights to stop the separation of black society from white. The justification that segregation provided a "separate but equal" setting which benefited education, the truth was it was a thinly veiled attempt to deprive African American children of the quality of education that all people need to excel in the modern world.
The case continued to gather momentum until it came before the Supreme Court in May of 1954. The decision was stunning and decisive when it came back 9-0. The statement of the court was brief, eloquent and to the point stating that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
Now even such a definitive statement from the Supreme Court did not end the struggle between segregationists and those who would end the practice that deprived African American children of quality education. In 1957 the Arkansas governor tried to block the integration of schools in his state and the only thing that could stop him was the intervention of federal troops sent by President Eisenhower. A similar but much more well publicized event occurred in Alabama where Governor George Wallace physically blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama. It took the intervention of federal marshals to physically remove him to assure that the law of the land, as mandated by The Supreme Court, was carried out. And the law of the land then and forever since then was that segregation was illegal in this country.
Since this landmark decision, there have been other more crafty attempts to resurrect segregation. But over the decades, attitudes have shifted to where such views on how our social institutions are set up are considered old fashioned and uneducated.
The integration of the schools was an important step in the ongoing struggle to create a truly equal society and to improve the chances of black children to grow up with the same opportunities as all other children in this country. As more and more African American children became well educated, the black population has been able to make a strong contribution to the culture and to the advancement of knowledge in every discipline of learning. Further, the growing educated black population brought about the black middle class which equalized society from an economic point of view. As African Americans began to participate in all of the economic opportunities that middle class prosperity afforded them, the chances for whites, blacks and people of all races and cultures to mix has been healthy to heal the scars of racism and slowly erase divisions in the culture.
But maybe the most important outcome of integration of the schools is the opportunity it has given for children of all races to learn, play and grow together. As young black and white students have attended classes, gone to football games and hung out at pep rallies together, they have become friends. They have had chances to work together on teams and socialize under many situations and as that has become the social norm, racism began to evaporate from the hearts of young America.
As a result, youth of modern times look on racism as a strange and primitive viewpoint from long ago and not in step with an up to date view of the world. This kind of true acceptance both by whites toward blacks and by blacks toward whites will go further to finally end racial separation and intolerance more than any riot or protest or march or even ruling from the Supreme Court could ever do. And we have Oliver Brown and that small group of parents from Topeka, Kansas to thank for this. By doing what was best for their kids, they did something wonderful for all of America's children both now and for generations to come.
Laughter That Heals
The great thing about the history of black America and the methods African American leadership has used to seek full equality and acceptance in this country is that there have been many roads to that goal. Yes, the great social, political, legal and even military movements that have been conducted to free African Americans from slavery and achieve full citizenship were crucial. And the great black leadership of dynamic personalities like Martin Luther King and George Washington Carver have made things possible that would never have been possible otherwise.
But not all of the gains in society have been achieved through tears and anger. In fact, some great black leadership can be found in a place one never would think to look. It can be found in the stand up comedy night clubs and on forward thinking television shows as black comedians helped everybody, black and white, laugh together at the differences in the races rather than cry separately.
Some of the most revered figures in comedy in the last thirty years were from the African American community. There are many notable names that spring immediately to mind that have used the "podium" of a comedy microphone and stage to talk about issues of race, color, discrimination and race relations in a way that all can appreciate their thoughts and achieve a common understanding. The names of Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and many more stand out as both very funny entertainers and people who have represented the African American community with pride and intelligence that all can admire.
Many an African American child took hope from the idea of rising up out of poverty and difficulty to reach greatness because they saw these black entertainers do it. Just by using their success to show the youth of black America that they too can be successful and that with hard work, intelligence, and the willingness to try they too can be somebody to their families and to their community. This is truly the role of a great role model and these men have given much hope to youth to make something of themselves and make a difference.
Sometimes it was hard for these entertainers to achieve equality. When Sammy Davis Junior first was recruited to make his valuable contribution to Frank Sinatra's team, many in that society did not think it was appropriate that a black man could perform with equality with his white contemporaries. We can be grateful too for the openness of others in the entertainment community that they would not stand to see racism keep talent such as Sammy's down. It was Sinatra himself that made sure that Sammy Davis could perform with the "Rat Pack" and in doing so, another door of racism was blown down in this country.
Stories like this are frequent. The Hollywood establishment always has been forward thinking in presenting entertainers based on their talent and not on the color of their skin or other artificial divisions. It has been television as well that has broken barriers and open the discussion of race and color for all of us to engage. By making it "ok" to talk about race relations, it also makes it ok to see those relations healed and clear the way for reconciliation and healing.
Many times when a black comedian is making his crowd laugh, he might say "the important thing is we talk about these things and laugh about them together". And that is the important thing. We can be grateful we have had such outstanding leadership in entertainment to bring black and white together in a way that eliminates hatred and hostility. Because it is hard to hate your brother when you are busy laughing together with him.
Equal Opportunity Legislation With Some Teeth
On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy set the stage for the passage of civil rights legislation that made meaningful change when he stated in a speech he was seeking..."the kind of equality of treatment which we would want for ourselves." And despite his tragic assignation, that leadership set the wheels in motion for one of the most important pieces of legislation that the United States government has ever passed to protect the civil rights of African Americans. That legislation was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This bill represented the culmination of a decades if not century's long struggle to achieve true civil rights for African Americans in the USA. President Kennedy saw this as the chance to put some real teeth into the law to give it the power to really change the way the country worked, played and lived together. It was a powerful continuation of the work that was started with The Civil Rights Act of 1875 but with much more enforceability combined with language that made it contemporary in an era of the expanding civil rights movement.
The bill was broad sweeping the scope of areas of civil life in this country to be impacted by restrictions against discrimination. The five "titles" of the bill cover may needed social changes including...
Title I - Banned discriminatory voter registration practices that were used to try to deny black people the right to vote.
Title II - Made it illegal to discriminate in public venues such as restaurants, theaters or hotels based on race.
Title III - Banned discrimination from public facilities such as government services or schools.
Title IV - Enforcement of desegregation of public schools
Title V - Made it illegal to discriminate in the workplace including race based hiring practices.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 touched on virtually every aspect of public life in America from schools to the work place even to public gatherings such as entertainment and eating establishments. In every way that Americans gathered together as a people, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination against African Americans in that setting.
But there are other important steps forward for civil rights that were an important part of the development of this bill. The bill did not just address civil rights for African Americans and in fact, it does not address that population directly at all. Instead the bill protects the civil rights for all minority groups. As such this made the struggle for equality that the African American community had been involved with ever since the Civil War everyman's struggle for equality and it made all Americans brothers in seeking equal opportunity and treatment for all who are citizens of this great country.
In approaching the bill in this way, Congress forged some powerful allies for the African American cause and put legislation in place to begin to positively view the emerging movement for equal rights for women which was just as much in need of correction and support to see that woman's rights became the law of the land too. Again, this built a strong alliance between these movements which added "clout" not only to the bill to make sure it made it through congress but it gave "clout" to those who were charged with enforcement of this important legislation.
You have to admire the courage of the leadership of this country for taking a stand on behalf of equal rights in putting this bill into effect. We especially add our admiration to the work of President Kennedy and then President Johnson who did not let the Kennedy assignation damage the chances that this bill would become law. For President Johnson, putting the muscle of the presidency behind this bill gave it the power to push past objections and become the law of the land.
Many say that this one political stand he took destroyed Johnson's chances to be reelected because of the animosity it caused in the south toward him. But President Johnson did what all presidents should do. He saw the good of the country and of the society as more important than his own political ambitions and he defied the danger to make sure equal rights for African Americans and all Americans became the law. We need that kind of leadership today and in ever generation of leaders of this nation so we always seek the common good in the laws we see passed by our government.
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