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What will you remember from Black History Month?

On the final day of the shortest month on the nation’s official commemorative calendar, I have a question for everyone: How much will you remember of whatever you learned about Black history this month? Or on our pages, how much of Black Jewish history?

I ask that not to point fingers, but to sincerely probe what works in helping all of us learn from history, even if that history isn’t our own.

The best analogy for truly appreciating lessons of the human experience come in an exchange between a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the Rev. Glenn Smiley, his mentor on the use of nonviolent direct action during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Don’t bother me with tactics,” King said to the older, white, pacifist preacher after learning myriad ways to fight oppression without fighting back physically. “I want to know if I can apply nonviolence to my heart.”

The Tulsa massacre

The Tulsa massacre By Getty Images

So what does it take to incorporate the lessons of history – especially Black history, which is so much the root story of this country’s past and present – into our hearts, and to make it a learning tool to inspire us with stories of triumphs and achievements, and warn us against repeating the horrors and transgressions of the past?

The evidence that it is not taken to heart or even remembered a day after February is overwhelming, even if it can’t be quantified. There are endless social media posts by people of all colors expressing surprise at “new” revelations of America’s Black past, and not just during the official history month.

One example is last summer’s 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, accompanied – or excused – by the repeated assertion even by mainstream media that it was never taught in schools.

Yes, the educational system needs work, but wait a minute – really? I can’t remember not knowing about Tulsa, whether I first heard of it in a classroom or not. Schools aren’t the only place we get our knowledge, and that atrocity certainly has been in history books.

Even if it wasn’t specifically taught in a classroom lesson, how could anyone have reached adulthood in this country without having heard, at least in concept, of a Tulsa, or Rosewood or Chicago 1919?

The latter was thoroughly documented, not through movies or reach-back documentaries on PBS, but immediately afterward in an Illinois governor’s commission in 1922.

You can read it in full here. It’s filled with causes, including the city’s de facto segregation patterns. The commission proposed solutions that were completely ignored, leading activists in 1942 to create the Congress of Racial Equality in Chicago to fight the same battles.

A generation later, their inheritors – including me as a small child – continued those battles when the Civil Rights Movement had finally taken off.

A 1962 mugshot of Charles McDew taken at his jailing in Baton Rouge, La.

A 1962 mugshot of Charles McDew taken at his jailing in Baton Rouge, La.

Granted, that’s given me a front-row seat to what now have been documented as historic events, and I have more skin in the game than the typical Black History Month forum attendee. But I’ve given those talks for years, about people like Charles McDew, the Black and Jewish early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

McDew was clearly the most important Jew of any color in the Civil Rights Movement, with all due respect to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mississippi martyrs Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Yet I am repeatedly and predictably asked weeks afterward, even by learned academics, “What was his name again?”

Why is McDew so important? Because the fact that a Black Jew was a major leader in the movement completely reverses the stereotype of Jews as benevolent mercenaries to the Black freedom struggle. McDew was every bit fighting for his own rights, and that he was driven at least in part by his Jewish values makes it all the more compelling.

So I’m asking you out there, people of all colors, and especially Jews, for whom the words “Never Forget” are so ingrained in our identity: What sticks? What will it take for you to remember? When will we as a people and all people learn to apply the lessons of the past, good and bad, to our hearts?

Tell me, please, at [email protected]

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