Black History: We Must Remember, Our Progress Depends on it

By Parker L. Gilkesson 

My understanding of history, particularly Black history, has shaped my entire life, worldview, and work. My father’s mother was raised by her grandmother who was born a slave in Mississippi. As a little girl, my siblings and I would go around to the projects every summer in my hometown with my grandmother as she gave a presentation on our family history to many bright-eyed young children–teaching them about our resilience, innovation, and power, despite the ugly realities of our subjugation. There is where I learned the strength of my people, but it is also where I understood the great lengths that this country has taken, historically, to hinder our progress.  

The Biden-Harris Administration is in office, full of hope. Against that backdrop, I think about a common thread throughout American history: progress; Reconstruction; white terror due to the fear of a loss of power; and then covert policy violence inflicted against communities of color. In the face of recent events—with the election, insurrection, democratic control of the legislative and executive branches—history shows us we must remain cautious.  We need to keep our eyes open, press forward to change without letting up, and remain vigilant for possible covert discriminatory policies and practices that would terrorize and harm communities of color during this progressive time.  

Historically, we are in what many consider a third reconstruction period. The first and most well-known Reconstruction era was from 1865 to 1877 after our ancestors fought, rebelled, and died to be free. During that time, over 2,000 Black folks became elected officials, many Black families were able to purchase land and start businesses, and multiple thriving Black towns popped up throughout the country.  

However, Black folks gaining their own power and independence was seen as a threat to the white power establishment. And feared loss of power led to tragic and deadly incidents where whites terrorized and instilled fear in Black communities through killings, land stealing, burnings, and lynchings. That physical violence also ushered in policy violence through the Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, and continued use of free Black labor that was justified and enabled through sharecropping as well as overcriminalization and imprisonment, which was sanctioned through an exemption in the 13th Amendment.   

The second Reconstruction era was after the Civil Rights Movement. That era’s protests, boycotts, sit-ins, and much more, led to our community seeing progress through passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, desegregation, and affirmative action. This time, white terror reared its ugly head at the community level and nationally with an entire generation of Black leaders—including, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, and many more—being wrongfully investigated, framed, and even assassinated by our federal government, leaving our communities defenseless. Soon after in that era came the “War on Drugs,” which single-handedly sent scores of Black and Brown folks to prison, along with rapid expansion of the prison industrial complex that made young children prey in the school-to-prison pipeline. Our communities have still not recovered. 

When President Barack Obama became the first Black U.S. president, many believed that we reached a “post-racial society.” Unfortunately, the hate and backlash against the election of a Black man to the U.S. presidency were so strong that Donald Trump, a known racist, sexist, and xenophobe who cast doubt on Obama’s birthplace, won the presidency in 2016. And now after one of the most publicly trying presidencies in our history and the election of Joe Biden, here we are in what seems to be a “new and renewed” Reconstruction era.  

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May 2020, white-led organizations, sports teams, and companies are finally publicly recognizing the impact of racism. Racial Equity and Diversity and Inclusion are currently hot topics for webinars and public statements. People of color are leading in more spaces, and bold change seems to be on the horizon. But I offer a cautionary look back at history again.  

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol opened a lot of eyes to the manifestations of white supremacy and terrorism that Black communities have experienced for more than 400 years since being violently stolen from our countries and brought here. Instead of the terror inflicted on Black people, this time our political establishment got an up-close look at the acts of white supremacy and terrorism when angry Trump supporters stormed the nation’s Capitol.  

Historically, we know that white terror is a weapon to maintain control. And despite our immense progress with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate; our first Black, South-Asian American female Vice President; and a number of newly elected officials of color across the nation, this is not a time to rest. We must be vigilant about covert policies that may oppress communities of color in the long term. We have a duty to continue pressing forward toward bold changes such as reparations, student loan forgiveness, guaranteed income, housing and health care for all, and much more. There is no limit to the amount of bold, necessary, and restitutional change we can achieve. But I perceive an overwhelming sense of complacency and relief in the white-led advocacy communities, simply because Donald Trump is no longer president and I worry they will stop fighting and rest. But history has shown us that resting now may result in policy violence on communities of color later. We can’t afford to forget Black history. 

Just as my grandmother taught me, we must REMEMBER because our progress depends on it.  

Happy Black History Month!