By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — So now we find ourselves in the cold and cruel month of February, a month where a victory is a day we see the temperature safely enough above freezing that any precipitation will not cause hazardous slippage on the roadways.
Otherwise, what’s it good for?
Here’s something: It’s Black History Month.
While its origins go back to a one-week attempt in 1926, and another in 1929, it was first proposed and celebrated as a full month at Kent State University in February of 1970.
Yes, that Kent State in that same year.
Three months later, on May 4, four white Kent State students were shot and killed by members of the Ohio State National Guard during anti-war protests.
For those who decry that it is inherently unfair to have a month dedicated to studying the history of one race, the Kent State shootings are an exact example of why we are not there yet.
Widely remembered, and promptly immortalized in Neil Young’s song “Ohio,” it served to render the slaying of two black students at Jackson State University in Mississippi as a footnote.
By the mid-1970s, Black History Month was gaining enough momentum that President Gerald Ford made it official, at least symbolically, in 1976.
But, in schools, teaching black history was sporadic. The choice was seemingly up to the original teacher.
I happened to be in sixth grade in the 1976-77 school year, and my teacher, a black American, had already been making it part of his curriculum for several years.
I have to admit that it was mind-expanding to learn about the likes of Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King.
I had several black classmates that year, as my grade school was among the first to be part of a busing program (schools in Philadelphia had been integrated for years, but that was in name only, as most neighborhoods were not only isolated by race but also ethnicity).
For these new schoolmates, some of which I’m still friends with to this day, I’m sure it was a welcome break from learning about Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus and all the rest.
Learning about slavery and important dates and figures in black history was important — and certainly age-appropriate – for grade school.
The next step – for older students — would be for dealing, straight on, with difficult issues hard to ignore.
At the top of the list is the disparity between the races when it comes to crime and justice.
The United Nations studied the topic, and it filed a report in 2018. Among the troubling results were that black Americans were nearly 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
This was most evident in the so-called War On Drugs, which created a 100-1 sentencing disparity. Of the people sentenced to jail for drug-related offenses, 74 percent are black. That translates to being 13 times more likely to go to jail, as opposed to receiving some other sort of disposition that relates to a slap on the wrist – a second chance – by comparison.
It would also seem that justice is not colorblind when it comes to the part about being innocent until proven guilty.
According a report released by The Innocence Project last summer, blacks are seven-times more likely than whites to be wrongfully convicted of murder and three times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.
The point is also being driven home by the film industry.
“Just Mercy” tells the true story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was wrongly convicted of murder in Alabama and is assisted in his defense. by a young Harvard-educated attorney named Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan).
It was well-received by critics, and Foxx was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for supporting actor, and it did moderately well at the box office.
There have been others on the topic in recent years, including “When They See Us” (2019), about the Central Park Five and “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018).
But the most famous movie about innocent people being wrongfully convicted remains “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), where the central figure is a white man (with a black sidekick).
Yes, there is “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962, and set in the same Alabama town as “Just Mercy”), but it features a white lawyer as the protagonist battling to exonerate a black man.
Streaming services, and Netflix in particular, is loaded with documentaries focusing on the wrongfully accused.
Meanwhile, the television news will occasionally show someone being released from prison, based on new and/or suppressed evidence, after decades.
Not only can the redemption fail to replace the lost years, but those cases are few and far between (or else they wouldn’t be news items when they do happen).
And the reality is that it only seems to apply on a one-way street.
It’s a fact that is cold and cruel, just like the month of February.
This column ran in The Times Herald on February 2, 2020.