A while back, while I was searching for material for the memoir I was preparing, I ran across an article I had written for The Kansas City Call, the Black weekly newspaper, at the request of the late Miss Lucile Bluford, managing editor. It was the first week of February, 1970 — and we were about to celebrate “Black History Month” for the first time. Before then, the observance had always been called “Negro History Week,” founded in 1926 by the African American historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Except on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I would often stop by The Call office just to chat. Wednesdays and Thursdays were preparation for Friday’s distribution.
But this time, one Monday, was different. Something was heavy on my mind. So I spoke with Miss Bluford about my frustration. What difference would it make to us African Americans by renaming “Negro History Week” to “Black History Month”? Would we become more conscious of who we were? Would we read and discuss more about our history with understanding and pride, and challenge school districts to include African Americans in the teaching of American history to show the debt America owes to us? Would we as adults and students be encouraged to read the works by numerous African historians? If none of the above took place during this designated month, was the week itself long enough? Ordinary reading is not sufficient. What needs to be addressed is how Blacks have been deliberately left out of full participation from the beginnings of this nation, how Blacks were never intended to be equal in America’s racist system.
After monologuing for about forty-five minutes Miss Bluford responded, “This thing is really worrying you, ain’t it, Brooks? You’ve been giving this a lot of thought and analyzing this system?”
I said, “Yes ma’am.” I went on to say, “Miss Bluford, unless white folks who created this racist system, admit that their ancestors created it, and now commit to change it, we’ll be in the same condition fifty to hundred years from now. Black folks don’t have the power to change the whole racist system. We need to acknowledge, to understand that we are victims of the system. We certainly have a role to play in making change, but it must be white society that makes conscious, substantive change. All the laws and marches won’t demolish the racist system. White folks need to take an honest, critical analysis of this racist system without becoming defensive, and be truthful about what they see. Then do an honest self-analysis and ask the question, ‘Am I a racist?’ And recognize that their witness allows them to be beneficiaries of that American racist system.”
Miss Bluford said, “Brooks, if you put what you’ve said in writing and get it to me early next week, I’ll publish it and do an editorial on it the following week.”
I thanked Miss Bluford and told her I would put my thoughts and analysis together and get them to her in writing. I did February 10, 1970. The article appeared Friday, February 12, 1970. As promised, Miss Bluford followed up with an editorial the next Friday. What I’ve written below in part comes from the original article as I wrote it. I would have enclosed a copy of the original in its entirety, but although it’s covered with a thin layer plastic for protection, it is nonetheless yellowed, brittle, and in some places very difficult to even make out the words. So, after re-reading as much of it as I could, I was prompted to update it fifty-years later. This allows me to segue into this —
An Analysis of America’s Structural Racist System As Viewed and Experienced By an Eighty-Eight Year Old Black Man Some Fifty Years Later, 1970—2020
Some fifty years ago I was thirty-seven years old. Today, I’m eighty-eight. For the past half-century, I’ve witnessed civil rights laws passed, often, it must be noted, with opposition. I’ve witnessed protests and marches for civil and human rights. I’ve even led a few. These and many other efforts, all to make America “a more perfect union.” (I’ve also witnessed the starting of a riot by local police, the suppression of voting rights, and many other efforts to drag us backwards.)
Locally, for example, Kansas City has elected two Black mayors; since the majority of the city is white, this has been possible only with some white support. The first Black police chief, after retirement, became the first Black county sheriff. There are a few more Black officers, and several have been promoted to high ranks. A recent city manager was Black. Kansas City City Hall looks racially different since I was appointed the first Black department head in 1968 following the riot after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But there’s still racism in both the Police Department and at City Hall.