I’ve just returned from my holiday in Atlanta Georgia. I went on February 24th which meant I arrived in the US during the last week of black history month. What struck me was the difference between black history month in England and its equivalent in the US.
Black history month is taken really seriously and is an important event in the US. I was told it wasn’t just in Atlanta (because of its history) but that it was celebrated nationwide. Knowing of my interest in equality and history generally my cousin took me and my friend Sybil to the Martin Luther King Jr. Centre in downtown Atlanta. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. It is hard to believe that less than 60 years ago a lot of America still adhered to the ‘Jim Crow’ laws, Jim Crow being a character in one of the infamous black and white minstrel shows back in the 1880s.
Can you believe that from 1880 right through to the late 1960s the majority of American states adhered to these laws? From North to South and East to West America, states could impose punishment on people consorting with members of another race. Invariably it was black people who were punished, often losing their lives. The most common laws and those that were adhered to most vehemently were those forbidding intermarriage and those forbidding black and white people to mix either for business or for pleasure. For us living as we do in 2012 the thought of such segregation is incomprehensible. Can you imagine having to get up and give your seat to another (white) person on the bus or train, even if you were disabled, were carrying heavy shopping or children because the law said you had to? Rosa Parks didn’t and in December 1955 was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man, initiating the bus strikes in Atlanta. A sample of some of the laws are as follows:
No person or corporation shall require a white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in a hospital, either public or private in which negroes are placed
It shall be illegal and unlawful for a restaurant or a place serving food to have black and white people in the same room, unless such white and coloured persons are effectively separated by a solid partition extending from the floor to a distance of 7 feet or higher and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for white and black people
How about this one…
The marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulato (mixed race) or person who has 1/8th or more negro blood shall be unlawful and void
This is seriously scary stuff and as you can imagine the lives of the black people who were invariably poor was not easy. It was against this backdrop that Dr Martin Luther came to prominence. At the historical site there is a bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi, he was Martin’s role model. In 1959 Martin and his wife were invited to India by Prime Minister Nehru to study the Mahatma’s non violent protest methods. It made me think about Nelson Mandela who had also used the non violent method of protest to initiate change in South Africa. It also made me think about the oppression of people, and man’s inhumanity to man and why it happens. Unbelievably it’s economic, it’s always about money.
On this (busman’s) holiday I also visited the very Southern city of Savannah. What a beautiful place, what a terrible history. Savannah was where many of the slave ships arrived following the dreaded middle passage. We met a lovely white lady on the Quay who was making roses out of palm leaves, these she told us were the ‘flowers’ slaves made when they ‘jumped the broom’ (got married). She asked us to wear them in remembrance of those that died.
She asked us if we had seen the ‘lock ups’ in the street we had just come down. We told her that we had seen some gloomy, unsavoury and damp looking spaces that looked like huge garages. She told us that over one million slaves died in the lock ups and that we should say a prayer for their souls. Unsurprisingly, there was no plaque or sign to commemorate the passing of these people anywhere near the lock ups and had we not met that woman we would not have known the area’s history. I guess it’s not something the officials of Savannah want to make public or be known for. Far better to be known for cajun chicken and pecan pie!
On the way back from Savannah, the radio was on and we listened to a chat show. The presenter was talking about the importance of black history month and said what a long way the US had come. After all, he said, we do have a black family in the White House. I agree, the US has moved a long way in a relatively short space of time, thanks to the changes in laws in the late 60s. However, when he went on to say that 31 per cent of the black middle class population has been made redundant and that 60 per cent of black people had lost their homes as a consequence of the recession, it seems to me that like us, they still have a long way to go.