February 22, 2012

Milwaukee Courier

February is Black History Month

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Every February, as we travel to the shopping mall or take a stroll through our neighborhoods, we see people of all types of backgrounds, religions, races, and ethnicities, free to celebrate our individual cultures and to form bonds with people of different ones. But such rosy images have not always depicted the American way; throughout our nation’s history, people have been pitted against others of a different race or religion, spanning from the enslavement of Africans to the imprisonment of Americans with Japanese ancestry. As we celebrate Black History Month, we must remember that the history of African-Americans is not one that defines a single heritage; it is a story of a people who fought for social justice and opportunity, a history for anyone of any heritage to identify with. We celebrate Black History month by honoring the extraordinary people who championed the cause for social justice.

One of the first leaders of the African American movement was a man born into a time where slavery was the social norm. Frederick Douglass was born a slave in February, 1818. At an early age, Douglass learned how to read and write, illegally, from his owner’s wife. He used this skill to educate himself and his fellow slaves. Douglass did not let his enslavement silence him; he became an outspoken advocate for equal rights of all people and single-handedly countered the southern argument that blacks were not intellectually capable of becoming American citizens. Douglass successfully escaped slavery in 1838 and made it his life’s mission to fight for freedom for African Americans and raise awareness of the horrors of slavery.

Men like Frederick Douglas paved the way for later leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. These inspiring people were the driving force behind the civil rights movement which paved the way for legislature such as the 24th amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to be ratified. The 24th amendment of the United States constitution was enacted to prohibits any type of poll tax, a tactic formally used to try to event poor African Americans from voting. The Voting Rights Act took this one step further by prohibiting all discriminatory practices, employed to discourage African Americans from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark law that prohibited all types of major discrimination against African American men and women, which ended segregation in schools, the workplace, and public buildings. These laws were passed and enforced because of the tireless work and sacrifices made by all African Americans who decided to stand up and fight for their rights.

The fight for equality has been fought by all types of people in all types of way. Hank Aaron fought for equal rights by swinging a baseball bat, Langston Hughes fought back through his poetry and Rosa Parks fought for social justice by refusing to move to the back of the bus. These people taught us that you don’t have to be a political leader to make a difference; you just have to believe in your cause and be willing to fight for it anyone you know how.

Wisconsin has played an interesting role in the fight for African Americans freedom. Wisconsin was one of the first states to grant African-Americans the right to vote due to a man by the name of Ezekiel Gillespie. Gillespie was born into slavery but bought his freedom when he was a young adult. In 1865 Gillespie attempted to register to vote in Milwaukee, but he was turned away despite a law that had been passed in 1849 declaring that African Americans had the right to vote. Gillespie sued the state successfully, and in 1866 all African American men over the age of 21 in the state of Wisconsin were allowed to vote. It is ironic now that almost fifty years after the passing of these laws, we are seeing the emergence of a new bill that hinders people’s rights. Wisconsin, a state once ahead of its time seems to be taking a step back in 2012. The Voter ID bill that was recently passed hinders people’s right to vote, especially those who are disabled, disenfranchised, or elderly. A person’s right to vote is an integral part of living in a democracy.

Today we face another landmark in the United States.  America is currently being led by the first African American president this nation has ever seen. This month is a time for all Americans to reflect back on an era of injustice in this country and the sacrifice that people made to secure equal rights for all Americans. Though there is no doubt incredible strides have been made, we must continue the fight to wipe out racism entirely, not just racism against African Americans but racism against all minorities living in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. showed us how to fight for equality and it is our duty to continue that fight.

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