African American History Month is an annual observance to highlight the important contributions and achievements of African Americans throughout our nation’s history. February is an opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the central role African Americans have played in United States history. Originating from “Negro History Week” created by historian and educator Carter Godwin Woodson, this month-long celebration presents an opportunity for our nation to better understand African American history, culture, and literature. Since 1976, the month of February has been designated as African American History Month by every U. S. President and leaders from other countries around the world.
As mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Community Relations Service (CRS) conciliators conduct unique work across the country in communities experiencing conflict through mediation, consultation, facilitated dialogue and training. “America’s Peacemakers” work with African Americans — and other community groups — to resolve tensions when conflict and violence threaten community stability and public safety. In 1965, CRS was on the ground in Selma, Alabama, to quell violence between civil rights groups, law enforcement, and community members during the latter two of three marches from Selma to Montgomery. These protests were part of the Voting Rights March, organized by civil rights leaders opposing laws that effectively prohibited African American and other marginalized community members from exercising their right to vote. At that time, African Americans were greater than 50 percent of the population in Alabama, yet only accounted for approximately two percent of registered voters in the state.1 This prompted civil rights leaders to contest their plight with Alabama Governor George Wallace through a planned 54-mile march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery.
On March 7, 1965, approximately 600 civil rights activists left the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Selma for a scheduled march to Montgomery. The demonstrators were met six blocks away at the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state and local law enforcement officials, who brutally attacked the marchers by beating them with clubs and using tear gas on them. This historical protest became known as “Bloody Sunday.”2 Since the initial march concluded in violence, President Lyndon Baines Johnson requested that CRS Director Leroy Collins meet with protest leaders – including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., law enforcement officers, and city officials – prior to the second and third marches.3 CRS conciliators, along with Director Collins, worked with these groups to reach consensus on how encounters between the protesters and law enforcement officers would be managed during the remaining protests. On March 21, 1965, CRS assisted with the final successful march, which led to the federal Voting Rights Act being passed on August 6, 1965.
During the month of February, and throughout the year, CRS honors the experiences and achievements of African Americans by remaining committed to serving communities in conflict based on differences of race, color, and national origin through mediating disputes and enhancing community capacity to prevent and resolve conflicts. Every year, CRS’s services are requested by federal, state, and local government officials; law enforcement agencies; school administrators; faith-based and community leaders; and civil rights organizations to support their work to address these and other conflicts and to prevent and respond to hate crime incidents. According to the 2016 Federal Bureau of Investigation Hate Crimes Statistics Report, over 57 percent of hate crime incidents reported that year were race-based.4 Of this category of incidents, the majority targeted African Americans. Even recently, from October 1, 2017-December 1, 2017, more than 55 percent of CRS’s Hate Crimes Prevention Act cases involved hate crimes against African Americans.
In September 2016 an unarmed African American man was shot to death by a police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This incident — captured on video by police cameras — received national attention triggering tensions between the community and local police, which resulted in civil unrest and mistrust among the parties. CRS worked with the city to facilitate a meeting with various stakeholder groups, focused on conflict resolution. CRS also worked to provide them with a framework for establishing advisory boards to help law enforcement, government, and community leaders address concerns related to policing and public safety. The recommendations were well received, and the local police and sheriff’s departments expressed interest in continuing to partner with the community to prevent and respond to conflicts.
CRS honors the many contributions of African Americans to our nation. During the 2017 National African American History Month Observance at the U. S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, “This month is not only a celebration for African Americans. It is a celebration of America, for Black history is American history – a key thread in the fabric of our country.” CRS will continue its critical and impactful work in communities across the nation to mediate conflicts arising from race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity disability and religion.
1 (HISTORY STORIES: , 2015) http://www.history.com/news/selmas-bloody-sunday-50-years-ago
2 (We Shall Overcome- Brown Chapel AME Church, n.d.)
3 (ELIZA BERMAN, 2015) http://time.com/3733726/leroy-collins-selma/
4 (2016 Hate Crime Statistics Released, 2017) https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2016-hate-crime-statistics