The Civil Rights Movement was not confined to the period which saw the more oppressive first half the 20th century transform into the considerably more progressive and open-minded half of the 1900’s. The movement toward fighting openly for civil rights for slaves and their offspring started when many were still being held in bondage. Events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland and nearly every city in American give testimonial witness which shreds the contention of the defense that the Movement is by definition over since Civil Right have been officially been redistributed with blind equality. Many secondary figures that played important roles and many events which changed the course of the history of the Civil Rights Movement occurred long before the 1950s and 1960s and some overlooked history might well have made it into a Black History Month curriculum if that curriculum was based on 31 days of planning rather than just 28 days of planning.
Just as the focus of much Black History Month educational material both within an academic setting and a pop culture setting place a premium upon events which stretched from the 1950s into the 1960s, so have the “starring roles” in this narrative of the Civil Rights Movement been written and so effectively cast that many other contributors have been reduced in significance. Some very important event have even been almost utterly obliterated from their rightful place on the timeline. One can hardly deny—and should not deny—that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s stimulated a vanguard of heroes and heroines who found themselves standing on the precipice of history with the potential to either write their name with lightning into the history books or literally disappear into oblivion. Without those featured characters written with a robust Shakespearean sense of his place in history like Martin Luther King and without the offbeat casting of unlikely revolutionaries such as Rosa Parks, the contributions of the supporting characters as the Civil Rights Movement played out may well have been of severely limited importance and the events in which they took part may never even have happened at all.
The true seeds of the empowered struggle for justice and demand for equality that became known as the Civil Rights Movement (and thus the stimulus behind Black History Month) in the middle of the 20th century are found in the disastrously infertile plan to cultivate the assimilation of former slaves into the world of freedom existing after the Civil War. Lincoln’s assassination came not at end of his destiny, but halfway through: the abolition of slavery represented just the curtain falling on Act One. Reconstruction would be every bit as difficult a struggle as the war itself and the question of how to ensure not just civil rights, but the real opportunity to exercise them and enjoy them was simply beyond the intellectual capacity of men like Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant. These were men who suffered from the worst possible failure at the time in which they were called upon for greatness: the deficiency of not being Abraham Lincoln.
Reconstruction brought great promise to the potential for assimilation, but much like when an occupation force leaves a fragile war zone behind, things fell apart quickly and the result was legislated racism known as Jim Crow Laws. These laws were actually a broad series of statutes and decrees which appeared to be designed under the concept of the races being equal but separate, but actually succeeded only the separation part. Racial equality was never a doctrine of Jim Crow society. Jim Crow laws were predominant in the former slave-owning states of the Deep South. In fact, Jim Crow was so deeply embedded into the texture of daily life in Dixie that references to “The South” in the first half of the 20th century is really referencing a way of life grounded in an irrefutable acceptable by the majority of white society that the inferiority of black society could hardly be denied simply looking at the living conditions (Pilgrim 2000).
The reality is that blacks in the South did appear to be socially and economic inferior. They held no political power and lived in gross poverty. This state had far less to do with the inherent quality of being black and far more with the inherent failure of the Union to live up to its contractual obligation. Civil rights which had been extended to freed blacks had only been successfully enforced due to the presence of Union soldiers deep inside the Confederacy. The removal of that protective force cost blacks every gain that had been made short of outright bondage. The longest-lasting negative implication of the failure to follow through on Reconstruction was less political than economic, however. Through political infighting and the basic underlying lack of a spine beneath the skin of Pres. Andrew Johnson, Reconstruction reached an abrupt end without coming through on promises to provide for equal redistribution of wealth from white former owners of slaves to the black slaves now free, but denied any real opportunity for empowerment. Stripped of political rights and guaranteed generational poverty little chance for escape, white society may have lost their aristocratic illusion following the Civil War, but they retained their supremacy over newly emancipated slaves just as before (Ginzberg and Eichner 1993).
Black History Month thus exists only as the result of successfully battling for economic empowerment after the expansion of economic equalities in the wake of World War II. This timeline is the reason that Black History Month places an inordinate amount of focus and attention on the Civil Rights Movements to gain strength in the immediate decades following that conflict. Civil rights has been in a state of give and take with every step forward followed by a step or two backward and even the creation of Black History Month itself follows this rhythm: one step forward in getting a month for celebration, but one step back in getting the shortest month of the year.