Using February as a backdrop, let me share with you two events that mark the birthday of Abraham Lincoln which provide an ideal time and opportunity for conversations about race and the continuing fulfillment of the American promise of racial equality and social justice.
Chronologically, the first event that took place occurred in 1909, marking the centennial anniversary of President Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12, 1909. On this very day, 108 years ago, one of the greatest call to action was proclaimed by a gathering of progressive-leaning black and white concerned Americans over the widespread and shocking racial violence, including lynching, targeting black Americans. This call to action came in the wake of the infamous 1908 Springfield, Illinois race riot that desecrated the adopted hometown and burial place of President Lincoln.
I’m hoping by now, many of you have already pieced the rest of this story together, and you already know what historic event took place on Feb. 12, 1909, on the anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday. Yes, this was the official founding date of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP). To be sure, the NAACP has become the most iconic grassroots-based civil rights organization in the nation, best known for its campaign for equal opportunity and its support of mass voter registration and mobilization.
But for the NAACP, I shudder to think what America would be like today if this great civil rights organization had not pursued its mission “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons.” This organization has worked and continues to labor tirelessly to make the promise of America real for all Americans.
Beginning as an interracial group of Americans committed to expanding the promise of America, prodding the American consciousness into doing the right thing for all the people, the NAACP today remains vigilant on continuing the struggle to make America a more perfect union. And I urge all of you to pursue justice in everything you do, for this is something we all must be held accountable for doing.
Now, the other event that marked the birthday of Lincoln started some 17 years following the founding of the NAACP. It was during the week of Lincoln’s birthday in 1926 that the first Negro History Week, now called Black History Month, was inaugurated by Carter G. Woodson, the acclaimed Father of Black History, and according to the historical research, that first Negro History Week “took off like a rocket.”
Some years later, on the 50th anniversary of Black History Month and during the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, President Gerald Ford became the first president to proclaim February as Black History Month. And this tradition has continued with each succeeding president down to President Trump, who in a recent listening session at the White House with black supporters stated, “I’m proud to honor this heritage and will be honoring it more and more.”
Larry Sutton is a retired teacher from Clinton City Schools.