Thursday, February 19, 2009

Black History Month Celebrates American Values

Each February we pause to reflect upon the achievements and accomplishments of Black men and women. In 1926 Carter G. Woodson founded this tradition to recognize the contributions Black people have made to humanity. As an historian, author, educator, and in 1912, the second Black man to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, Woodson himself is a wonderful example of what one person--devoted to an idea and dedicated to a task--can accomplish and contribute to the lives of many. The Black American legacy and heritage has bequeathed to generations of Americans a panorama of men and women, who have personified perseverance, determination, resilience, courage, faith, forgiveness, and hope.

Black history is not simply “Black” history; it is American history. The experience of Black Americans serves as inspiration to us all that when the struggles are grueling and the odds are against us, we don’t give up. We stand together. There is nothing more truly American than this collective determination to lift up what has been cast down, to right wrongs, to find solutions for shared problems, and to create a new and better hour.

In 1945 a young baseball player was summoned to the office of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager. Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson that he was looking for a ballplayer “with the guts not to fight back,” a phrase that is now legendary and which arose from the faith that was shared by Rickey and Robinson.

Years before Robinson had earned the reputation of a “mad brawler, always ready to smash in the teeth of any white man who insulted him.” Later on during his years at UCLA, he was influenced by Black preacher, Karl Downs, who taught Robinson that Christianity was not a synonym for racial submission. By 1945 Jackie was firmly convicted that God had a purpose for his life, and Branch Rickey’s challenge to Robinson was based on their shared faith and the words of Jesus, “Resist not evil: but whosoever shall strike you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also." Through all the frustrations that lay ahead, Jackie Robinson’s Christian faith sustained him. The rest of Robinson’s life story is well-known sports history. . .Black history— and American history.

On July 4, 1812, John Jasper was born—the 24th child of Philip and Tina Jasper. A slave and a lay minister, Philip died a few months before John's birth. Tina prayed that God would make her son a preacher as his father had been, but John had no interest in spiritual things. He married a young slave girl on a neighboring plantation, but on the day of their wedding, a slave uprising caused the two plantation owners to separate the young couple. They never saw one another again, and John’s inconsolable grief and bitterness led him down an angry and malevolent road.

In 1839 while working in a factory, however, Jasper was suddenly convicted of the ruination that resentment and rancor had wrought upon his life and in that moment he asked God to save him. Thirty days after his baptism in 1840, he was licensed to preach by the Old African Baptist Church, and he didn't stop for more than sixty years!

Jasper’s passionate messages drew huge crowds, black and white, and in 1867, he founded the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond. The church began with nine members and at Jasper’s death in 1901 numbered nearly 2,000. John Jasper was just one of the many Black American preachers, who over the centuries, have helped to establish the centrality of faith, righteousness, and hope in the heart of Black history. . . and American history.

Thirty years ago, Star Parker was a single mother living on welfare. Her history included four abortions, drug abuse, promiscuity, and burglary. Today Star Parker, author and committed Christian, is the president and founder of the nonprofit Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education. Parker recalls the day that turned her life around. Having gone to church at the invitation of some Christian friends, she heard the pastor challenge his congregation with these words: "What are you doing living on welfare? The government is not your source!"

Parker was stunned by what she heard because government welfare was her source! In the twinkling of an eye, Star grasped the truth of her worldview. It had chained her to a life of spiritual and economic poverty. Parker often testifies that she was comfortable in the company of those who were rebellious, lazy, and unwilling to work when they could get welfare checks for nothing. When she committed the remainder of her life to God, all that entitlement thinking changed.

In Parker’s most recent book, Uncle Sam's Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America's Poor and What We Can Do about It, she writes about the dangerous dependency that emerges among those who see government as their salvation and that long-term dependence on welfare leaves its recipients in emotional and spiritual poverty. Star’s conclusion, and I quote, is that "In our attempt to blame poverty on prejudice, we have taught the poor to be prejudiced against the basic values necessary to sustain a free and civil society . . . We've taught them there are no real absolutes to the human condition, except perhaps that the highest value in life is to acquire things."

Star Parker is making Black history. . .American history. . .and she joins a long line of human beings of all ethnicities, who have loved freedom. Parker shares the company of those in ages past who understood that if we are to preserve the traditions that define us and ensure that the precious rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are passed on to our descendants, then it requires from each generation of Americans certain attributes of character: accountability, resolve, initiative, responsibility for one’s own choices and actions, dignity, respect, the courage—and, yes, the freedom--to fail and then to rise up and try again.

Let me close with the words of Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson in a letter, written in August 1791. Born in 1731, Banneker was a self-educated Black American mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. The portrait of this honorable and remarkable man is one of the most worthy to hang in the halls of Black History.

“Sir, Suffer me to recall to your mind that time in which the Arms and tyranny of the British Crown were exerted with every powerful effort, in order to reduce you to a State of Servitude... This, Sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery, and in which you had Just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition, it was now Sir, that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all Succeeding ages. 'We hold these truths to be Self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that amongst these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'"