By Kermit Hovey

February’s Black History Month challenges and encourages all of us seeking justice, whether in racial, environmental, climate, or other arenas. The stories it calls to our attention teach us that struggle for progress and vigilance to protect it must never end.

Black History Month exists as an attempt to remediate a historic societal failing. Most of us have a woefully inadequate understanding of Black history, and consequently, American history. As we learn that, we learn an added important lesson: Our society and our schools have historically done a woefully inadequate job of teaching us.

As I take in the hidden stories of Black history focused on this month, they teach me that not only don’t I know all I should, I don’t even know how much I don’t know. Fortunately, there are lectures, webinars, courses, books, and more that I can turn to this month and beyond. While I am still learning about Black history and American history, a few lessons about the struggle for justice come to mind.

First, the realities of past racial injustice are inconvenient, awkward, embarrassing, and worse. All too often, they are not covered in school. Instead, they are covered up and discounted in mainstream discourse.

This is true not just of the “distant past.” It is tragically true in many ways in the immediate present. Consider the intentional, premeditated efforts over the past year by various state legislatures across this country to restrict access to the vote and to place drastic legal constraints on schools’ and educators’ ability to teach the full “warts and all” history of America. This sadly includes efforts here in Wisconsin (e.g., 2021 Assembly Bill 411, a bill that would impair open discourse and education about racism, vetoed by Gov. Evers).

Second, the major racial justice struggles of Black history (i.e., American history) include those to end slavery, Jim Crow segregation, school discrimination, housing discrimination, voting discrimination, marriage discrimination, employment discrimination — essentially anything to bring equality and civil rights to Black people in America.

For all intents and purposes, these struggles began in 1619, when the first African slaves were forcibly brought to the North American continent. The injustice of slavery and racial inequality became an undeniably American problem at that time, one perpetrated by those claiming to be agents of civilization and tragically continuing to the present day.

Just a brief review of these struggles reveals key lessons for contemporary struggles to address systemic problems and dysfunctions of our society for the sake of justice:

  • Progress is not easy.
  • Progress is not smooth or linear.
  • Progress is not quick.
  • Progress is not guaranteed.
  • Progress is not permanent..
  • Progress takes awareness and education,.
  • Progress must be guarded and protected.

Realize that it has taken over 400 years of literal blood, sweat, and tears to reach even the level of racial justice and equality we currently have. Sadly, any progress in racial justice has been pruned back by opposing forces. And then the work continues to restore and expand that progress.

Those in other causes attempting similarly deep and transformative change should take note of these lessons and not despair. Ongoing opposition will delay progress and likely attempt to roll it back.

For example, in the case of climate change, we’ve had the science and atmospheric chemistry to understand the role of CO2 in global heat retention only since the late 1800s, and we’ve known that it’s a serious problem only since the 1960s. In the years since, increasingly clear, detailed, and dire warnings have made the case for urgent action. In fact, some advocates say we need to make drastic and massive changes—far greater than any achieved so far—within just the next eight years to avoid catastrophic global warming–induced climate change.

So, too, with the struggle for racial justice: A struggle that has persevered over hundreds of years is now felt to be more urgent than ever.

In whatever arena we struggle for just change, the more we do and the sooner we do it, the better. All the more so when those issues and struggles intersect and intertwine. We need to realize that we must continually push for progress and guard against efforts to dismantle it. Progress is not easy, smooth, quick, guaranteed, or permanent. It must be guarded and protected. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We must continue to bend it even as some say it’s too late or too hard and others resist and push back.

Two Black History resources to consider:

To stay politically engaged as a citizen of our democratic republic, Kermit Hovey volunteers and leads in various groups including ClimateCaretakers.org350Madison.orgCitizens’ Climate Lobby Madison ChapterWisconsin Creation Care Ambassadors, and the Middleton Sustainability Committee to advocate for a livable, healthful world powered by clean energy and untainted by dirty fossil fuel pollution.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Middleton Times Tribune.