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Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you. The terrible struggle that made me an American out of a potential slave said “On the line!” The Reconstruction said “Get set!” and the generation before said “Go!” I am off to a flying start and I must not halt in the stretch to look behind and weep. Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory.
Do young people today, black or white, know about Marian Anderson, the glorious contralto who, after being denied permission in 1939 to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington by the Daughters of the American Revolution, was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to sing instead at the Lincoln Memorial before a radio audience of millions – and who went on to become the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera and to perform at the March on Washington? Do they know about Jackie Robinson, who broke the baseball color line in the major leagues in 1947 and whose quietly bold endurance in the face of racist abuse by other players did a great deal to ease the way for other black players?
Do they know about Nat King Cole, who despite his heartbreakingly gentle singing voice was a man of steel, refusing, out of a profound sense of principled resistance, to move his family from their house in previously all-white Hancock Park, Los Angeles, even though bigots harassed them mercilessly and even burned a cross on their lawn? Do they know about Louis Armstrong, whom some unjustly branded an Uncle Tom but whose livid challenge to President Eisenhower to take a stand on school desegregation in Little Rock was widely credited with forcing Ike to act – and who was effective precisely because he was perceived not as a radical firebrand but as the very personification of decency, responsibility, and good citizenship? (If you want to be ennobled by the inspiring life of a great American, buy Terry Teachout’s wonderful biography of Armstrong.)
One could list many, many other names – ranging from Joe Louis to General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and the Tuskegee Airmen. And Bill Cosby, who in recent years has been a brave and eloquent spokesman for individual responsibility.
The men and women I’ve mentioned represent an extremely wide range of black Americans. But what they all have, or had, in common is the selflessness and self-discipline to rein in their thoroughly legitimate rage over ugly, monstrous, and indefensible bigotry and to become men and women whose excellence and dignity helped to shame millions of white Americans into giving them – and all black Americans – their due. For this, they deserve our undying respect – not only in the month of February, but throughout the year.
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