POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Black History Month

by David Trumbull

February 25, 2005

Perhaps we need another lawgiver --a Solon, or a Caesar, or a Gregory-- to reform our calendar yet again. I mean, just how does one reconcile Valentines Day indulgence in chocolate and spumante or prosecco with the abstemiousness we are supposed to observe in lent, which this year covers most of February?

February also brings us another, more fortuitous juxtaposition of observances. February was chosen for African-American History Month to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and of Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. Lincoln's Birthday and Washington's Birthday are now (for good and bad) rolled into a generic Presidents' Day. I observed this Presidents' Day by visiting the John F. Kennedy Library on Columbia Point in Dorchester. While there, I reflected on Black History Month.

Every time I visit I find myself drawn to two displays: that of Robert Kennedy's Attorney General's office during the struggle to racially integrate higher education in the old South and the video of JFK endorsing the aims of the civil rights movement. In general, we tend to place far too much importance on the Presidency, forgetting that the Executive is merely one of three equal branches of government. But in the struggle for equal rights for all Americans regardless of color, we cannot overestimate the power of the Presidency as used by many of the men who occupied the office.

Last year we marked the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision against enforced segregation in the public schools. The court rendered a legal decision, but it took President Dwight D. Eisenhower sending federal troops into Arkansas to actually integrate the schools. Similarly, when congress refused to pass legislation integrating the military, President Harry S Truman, by executive order, ended segregation in our armed services.

When the majority is willing to look the other way while one minority (white supremacists) oppresses another less powerful minority, the power of the Presidency can be an effective tool for equality, freedom, and justice. The Founding Fathers understood this, and our Constitution provides for an Executive with both the power and the freedom of action needed in such situations. In Federalist Paper Number 70 Alexander Hamilton, arguing for adoption of the Constitution argues: "Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy." Fortunately, the men who have served as President have, for the most part, used their power wisely and for the lasting good of the Republic.

The Presidential Libraries are great resources for learning about the presidents and our nation's history. As President George W. Bush said in this year's Black History Month proclamation "It is important to teach our children about the heroes of the civil rights movement who, with courage and dignity, forced America to confront the central defect of our founding. Every American should know about the men and women whose determination and persistent eloquence forced people of all races to examine their hearts and revise our Nation's Constitution and laws. As we celebrate African American History Month, we remember how great the struggle for racial justice has been. And we renew our efforts to fight for equal rights for all Americans. We have made great progress, but our work is not done."


David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee; he may be contacted at (617) 742-6881 or Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.