Copyright, 1993 by Julian Boyd This is an opportune moment to look back at our past to see what it has to teach us about our future.
A new administration has taken office, and as it did, our long national nightmare came to an end.
There are those Americans so young they cannot remember the last time there was hope and promise in the land, who can't remember when we last had a President who believed in all of the American people.
I teach history to college students, young women and men too young to remember having lived under a President who believed that government was intended to help those who cannot help themselves.
For the last twelve years, they've lived in a nation where survival of the greediest was the national religion and where brotherhood was neither preached from the national pulpit on Sunday or practiced any other day of the week. They've seen Presidents drive us apart when they could have pulled us together. They've seen the awful forces of reactions gain power and prestige. They've seen bigotry proudly paraded.
They've grown up in a world where might nearly always meant right, and where guns were chosen over bread and butter every time. They saw a campaign for the nation's highest office conducted as if it were a contest for the Presidency of the Ku
-2Klux Klan or the White Citizens Council.
But this is a new day, and the first weeks of the new administration have been impressive.
Oppressive restrictions on women's right to choose and the right of working people have been removed with the stroke of a pen.
Ancient discrimination based on status is being removed too but not without an ugly argument reminiscent of the bigoted battle against Truman's racial integration of the armed services 45 years ago.
We've heard the arguments against gays and lesbians, and we've seen the threatened insubordination of the military chiefs once before. They said then and they say now: morale will suffer. Closeness in showers and foxholes will doom discipline. They can't soldier. Difference and diversity mean dissension and decay.
These complaints were born of bigotry in 1948 and they echo that mindless bigotry today.
The rest of the picture so far is encouraging.
Campaign finance reform is on the agenda again.
One hundred thousand more people came to celebrate the new administration than attended the Reagan inaugural in 1980 and the Bush inaugural in 1988 combined.
Ten times as many Americans are reaching out to touch the new administration - calls to the White House are up from 5,000 to 50,000 per day.
A cabinet has been assembled that looks more like America
3 than any other before it, and the President's pre-election promises that we don't have a person to waste in America and that people will be first seem to be coming true.
There have been some bad moments amidst all the happy times. In an incredible expression of cowardice and lack of leadership, Congress caved in to Neanderthal bullies and told the people of the District of Columbia, of Puerto Rico and the nation's other colonies that their votes would be counted in Congress only when they won't count at all.
In an ugly revival of the political degeneracy of the Cold War period, the right wing red-baited the distinguished President of Spelman College out of contention for an administration position.
There are sure to be other disappointments, but make no mistake - this is a great time to be living in America, a time when possibilities are endless, when anything can happen.
It is in such times when great changes do occur, and I want to take some time to look back at our past, to other times in other days, when change walked across the land.
These are opportune times for that reflection too.
Frederick Douglass presided over the first Coloured American Day Observance in 1893; Mrs. Blance K. Bruce, whose husband served as Reconstruct era Senator from Mississippi, presented a Negro History Resolution at the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs in 1899. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the recognized father of black history as a scholarly discipline, began Negro History Week in 1926. It became Afro-
4 American History Month in 1976.
It was initially celebrated largely in segregated Southern black schools - one reason older Southern-born black people know more about themselves and their past than their grandchildren do. However underfunded and understaffed, these schools were responsible to their students. They tried to teach the basics - reading, writing, arithmetic and history - but also tried to make sure that Negro History was a constant part of the curriculum too.
Thus long before I heard the word diversity or multiculturism applied to education or the workplace, I knew a black man invented the machine that made the shoe industry possible and another had designed the city of Washington, another had invented the traffic light and another had discovered blood plasma. Long before I ever dreamed the nation would celebrate a black man's birthday - indeed long before I had heard of or even met that man before he became my teacher - my teachers in rural one-room schools with outhouses made sure I knew who I was and where I came from and what contribution my people had made.
We also learned how to think.
We didn't learn that Columbus had discovered America, but that Columbus discovered America for Europe; those who met him didn't need discovering; they already knew it was here.
We knew the textbooks which described the Civil War as "a war of Northern aggression" or said the war was fought over states' rights were just plain wrong. The war was fought over whether our great-grandfathers and mothers would be someone
5 else's property. And when years later, we were told that the war in Vietnam was "a war of Northern aggression", we knew we had heard that phrase somewhere before.
We've come a long way since I was a schoolboy. Our common national understandng of our past and present is generally greater now than it was then, even if all the details aren't crystal clear. And our understanding of history is clearer, even though we still argue over what that history means.
One part of the history we know more abour is the history of the mid-century movement for civil rights. Whether called that, or the black struggle or the freedom fight, we know more about it now than ever before.
In a few years, for example, we will have a pretty clear understanding of what Martin Luther King did and said and thought and where he was nearly every week of his life between the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 until his murder in Memphis in 1968.
The increase in our knowledge about one of the 20th Century's most notable figures has come about, at least in part, because of the continued and increased interest among Americans in King, in the movement associated with him, and the times which produced him and other other notable figures in our common past.
Looking at that movement from today, we see a different view of the events and personalities of that period.
Instead of the towering figures of Kings and Kennedys standing alone, we now see an army of women and men.
Instead of famous speeches made to multitudes, we now see