As I survey the advertisements and announcements of the coming commemorations around the country of African American History Month, many of the events and activities center on the Civil Rights Era of the mid-1950s-late 1960s. There will be reenactments of the 1963 March on Washington, coupled with recitations of the sermons and speeches of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., most especially his tour de force I Have a Dream of August 28, 1963 and his April 3, 1968, at the time unbeknownst sorrowful valedictory, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. And reflections on the sit-in demonstrations aimed at segregated public facilities (in our time, vividly, painfully contemporized as “die-ins” under the banner #BlackLivesMatter to protest police killings of unarmed black folk and the inequality of law enforcement conduct in minority communities). And ruminations about the legal and political struggles that led to the passage of the monumental 1965 Voting Rights Act, so powerfully recreated in the current film Selma. And reconsiderations of the function and validity of non-violent vis à vis more forceful forms of protest.
To reflect anew and in depth on all of this is good, lest we fall into catastrophe by failing to abide by that adage, attributed to philosopher and essayist George Santayana, regarding the discipline of remembering former times. (Contrarily, I recall Kurt Vonnegut’s retort: “I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana. We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”)
O’er the course of this month and beyond, I will contemplate this rich history of test and triumph, all of which, for me, clarifies in our time struggles yet to be engaged and victories yet to be won.
I also will draw from the sacred memory of my personal history those whose lives and witness were models for me, taking the clay of my mind and heart, soul and spirit, and, like the hands of God the potter, molding me to be a person of love and justice.