Minnesota Humanities Center

Black History

Posted February 15, 2021

In celebration of Black History Month, the Minnesota Humanities Center has asked some of our friends to write essays to share with you their thoughts on black history and culture, as well as on broad issues of racial and social justice. Like a good conversation with friends after a good meal, we have not attempted to steer the conversation in any direction but instead will seek to enjoy the richness of the ideas. Please therefore curl up with a warm blanket during this extended cold snap and enjoy the conversation with us.

Almost sixty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led one of the greatest demonstrations of freedom in the history of our nation. An estimated quarter of a million Americans came to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to demand change, accountability, and justice.

Dr. King in his soaring rhetoric urged the crowd to reject, and never accept, the government’s failure to extend the full rights of citizenship to African Americans. Far too long African Americans had their economic dreams deferred, educational opportunities frustrated, and had suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of police.

Dr. King also told the assembled throng that they cannot be satisfied when so many African Americans were being denied the right to vote by local officials and other African Americans believing that their votes do not matter.  Dr. King then issued the following call to action:

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the worn threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again, and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy, which has engulfed the Negro community, must not lead us to a distrust of all white people. For many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

On January 6 this year, several thousands of people came to Washington, D.C. and engaged in behavior that most Americans considered to be a direct attack on their democracy. The events of this historically tragic day resulted in theft, destruction of property, and unfortunately loss of life. 

Many of those who engaged in the assault of the United States Capitol carried Confederate flags. Several people have been charged for engaging in criminal behavior and the Senate is now presiding over an impeachment trial of the former President.

The juxtaposition of Dr. King’s words with the actions over the past two weeks in our Nation at the United States Capitol are almost too ironic and painful to bear.

A rainbow emerging from the clouds of division was the announcement from the Nobel Peace Prize committee, on the first day of Black History month, that Stacey Abrams was a nominee. A member of Norway’s parliament in commenting on Abrams nomination said:

Abrams’ efforts to complete King’s work are crucial if the United States of America shall succeed in its effort to create fraternity between all its peoples and a peaceful and just society.

The days ahead of us will be difficult as we attempt to get our democracy in order. Let us heed the words of Dr. King as we proceed forward. 

Let us therefore commit ourselves to having an open heart and open mind so that we do not become bitter and cold with hate.

Let us come to realize that our lives in our democratic republic are intertwined in a garment of mutual destiny.

Let us dedicate ourselves to creating unity among us all and steadfastly rejecting all the efforts to divide us.

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Christopher P. Lehman Headshot
By: Christopher P. Lehman

Christopher P. Lehman is a Professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University.