Timothy Thomas Fortune was a New Yorker. But don’t hold that against him. Nobody’s perfect, and he faced challenges greater than ours: Born into slavery in Florida in 1856, he moved to New York, where he spoke and wrote — he edited Booker T. Washington’s autobiography.
In 1890, Fortune gathered 141 delegates from 23 states to Chicago on “the free soil of Illinois” for the first meeting of the National Afro-American League, an early civil rights organization. Fortune gave an impassioned speech, trying to move his audience to action.
“Apathy leads to stagnation,” he said. “It is a narrow and perverse philosophy that condemns as a nuisance agitators.” Those who stand up, he said, are in fact essential to establishing their people as proud, free, equal and valued American citizens.
Fortune saw a different path than history took: He thought the violence America used against Blacks ought to be met in kind: “The arsenal, the fort, the warrior are as necessary as the school, the church, the newspapers and the public forum of debate,” he said. “It’s time to fight fire with fire.”
Were I a teacher, I might ask my class to discuss whether Fortune’s strategy would have worked better or worse in the slow crawl toward attaining the rights the Constitution hints all Americans deserve.
That isn’t why I picked Fortune to kick off Black History Month. But for what he said when listing the reasons for his organization. The first is: “The almost universal suppression of our ballot in the South.”
Kinda blows the dust off the pages of the past, doesn’t it? Donald Trump very deliberately tried to steal the 2020 election by negating Black votes. Why? Well, first, Black voters tend to support candidates who aren’t trash-talking bigots who fear and hate them. And second, denying Black people the right to vote is an American tradition, much older than baseball.
That’s where history comes in. Not as an eat-your-peas obligation that must be mastered to check off a box. Not meet-Ida-B.-Wells history. But because history is the machine that drives the present.
History is important because it is a motivating story. Five years before Trump was leading mobs to storm the Capitol he was spinning a narrative, a history that went like this: White people run the world, always have and always will. They are besieged by all these needy, lazy, criminal darker races who come here and ruin things by existing.
That’s one history. But there are other, better, truer histories. The history of our Founding Fathers creating a legal framework designed to help themselves, but in doing so accidentally, like scientists in a lab, creating the virus of legally-mandated freedom. Which once loosed upon the world, not only infected them, but infected others, unintentionally: women, Blacks, other groups. Striking off their chains took blood and effort and sacrifice. And still does.
Their struggle is a story of American greatness. History that far exceeds the delusional bully’s swagger passing for patriotism for half of America, and worth a careful look. This might be the most important Black History month. Because we need its lessons now more than ever, a history that respects and reflects bedrock American democratic values that are under furious assault.
There was an earlier convention in Chicago, in October, 1853. The First Convention of the Colored Citizens of the state of Illinois. Their convention offered 37 resolutions, the first three rejecting the then-popular notion that American Blacks should go back to Africa. That was never going to happen.
”We will plant our trees in American soil, and repose in the shade thereof,” the convention declared.
Then they said something that, alas, is still relevant 168 years later.
”We are Americans by birth, and we assure you we are Americans in feeling; and in spite of all the wrongs which we have long and silently endured in this country, we would yet exclaim, ‘with a full heart, Oh, America, with all thy faults, we love thee still!’”
A sentiment endorsed in this city in 1853, an era when legal slavery gripped the Southern half of the nation and Illinois had just passed a law to return fugitive slaves.
If the most wronged people in America could still hold tight to its ideals, could proclaim faith in the country that enslaved and oppressed them, how could we, now, facing our present troubles, believe in that promise with any less conviction?