, Newburyport, MA

February 26, 2013

When is Black History Month?

As I See It
John Burciaga

---- — This one — or what white folks call “February.”

Few persons use this time to find out things they don’t know. What was Jim Crow? Who was Frederick Douglass? How on earth did this country, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” come so soon to tolerate slavery? Does anybody read a book anymore?

Some people still think blacks should stop whining and seeing racism everywhere; after all, wasn’t there an Emancipation Proclamation and a war to defend it? And just to re-make the point, didn’t we have a Civil Rights movement a hundred years later? What escapes them is why, indeed, we had to re-make the point a century after.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day The Daily News published a column regarding my experiences with three young black men, all members of the NAACP, on our way to Atlanta for the King funeral in 1968, with harrowing excursions into Baltimore and a dead-of-night Virginia countryside.

I reference that piece now, but will add that on our return to Pennsylvania, people found our reports hard to believe. They tended to believe first, and only, the media, and even then harbored suspicions.

Of course Southerners like me knew and understood because we were, and are, used to racism as a thing writ large, having seen beatings and perhaps even lynchings, right up to mid-20th century America.

Northerners seemed not acquainted with racism up close. They were still surprised, when King marched in Chicago, that all those adorable fonzies turned out to pelt him with rocks, bricks and bottles. But that’s why King went there — otherwise, Chicagoans would have denied their racism.

Such has been my experience since migrating north many years ago. People knew of early segregation in Boston and the whole ugly integration-and-busing controversy, but few knew the face of racism up front and personal.

As a young clergyman in Missouri and not far from my own hometown, my very suggestion of a pulpit exchange with a black minister for a single Sunday — after the church board had approved it —occasioned my being met on the street and in public buildings with a hail of fists and spittle, including by members of my congregation.

A clergyman newly arrived was always met with instant respect and could risk that only by gross betrayal. Preaching racial equality was such a betrayal and you had to see to believe the change in faces that go from friendly to the hardest cast of expression imaginable.

Local threats to burn the church finally led the elders to revoke my invitation to the black minister. I said that if it burned, we would wear such disgrace like a badge of honor, for there could be no denial of what our town was really like. To no avail: Hearts went out to the lovable old building, though a visit several years later found it filled with junk and replaced by a new, flat, tasteless place of worship elsewhere in town.

This is not to say that all the town was racist, but better people allowed it to happen. It is a truism that evil triumphs when good people do nothing.

Racism is a deep and insidious sickness of the human heart and soul. When I heard, after the church bombing in Birmingham in the ‘60s, some Northerners say that the perpetrators must have regretted that children were victims, I could but marvel. That kind of racist absolutely doesn’t care. They believe that “little ones turn into big ones” and the age and time of their demise is of little consequence.

During this month, among my reading is the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Though brief, it is more than instructive of a way of life that really wasn’t all that long ago. If you read nothing else, read that, and remember.

I have walked my local ward with petitions and each time have been surprised how many black persons live nearby. One always spoke with me through a crack in the door, her face not showing. To all of them I said that I was delighted to have them as neighbors and wished I saw them more frequently on our streets and downtown.

Then I remembered: Regardless of all that we think has changed, racism hasn’t gotten up on little hind legs and walked away. We need to assure our African American neighbors that they are at home in our town.

If they don’t feel that way, whose fault is that? After all, it’s easy for us to forget, but not for them.


John Burciaga of Newburyport had companion careers as clergyman and journalist. His blog, “Ichabod’s Kin,” is at: