by ADON TAFT
JAN. 30, 2019- Already packed with more momentous events than any other, the shortest month of the year may become even more significant with a possibly historic state of the union address that almost wasn’t; now scheduled for the first Tuesday in February.
President Trump is expected to tout a healthy economy with good if not record figures for job growth, low unemployment in all racial, ethnic and gender categories, slightly higher wages and lower taxes.
The Democratic response, to be given by Stacy Abrams, Georgia’s activist for minority voters, is likely to decry the lack of universal medical care, the rising cost of drugs, the injustice of the justice system.
If there is to be an explosive issue, it probably will be over whether or not there will be a rigid southern border to the United States and whether or not those permitted to cross it are a select group.
At one time, many of the celebrated events in February were explosive or at least controversial. That includes the two most prominent ones — Black History Month and George Washington’s birthday.
Like so many of the important events in the history of the United States, religious faith plays an important part.
Much of the history of the rise of blacks to equality in this country is couched in the Christian faith of the abolitionists, both black and white, many of the most important with birthdays in February.
Among the most cited are Frederick Douglass, a former slave born in Maryland in 1818, and Harriet Tubman of “underground railroad” fame, also born in Maryland 20 years later.
Douglass led to know God as his Father by a white Methodist pastor, became an educated, fiery speaker and writer for the abolitionist movement under the tutelage of Henry Ward Beecher, the white Brooklyn Congregational pastor who was the most famous abolitionist of them all. The first African American to hold a high federal office when he was named consul general to the Republic of Haiti in 1889, Douglass said that from the time he came to know God and began to read his word, ”I saw the world in a new light and my great concern was to have everybody converted…and (for himself) to have a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.”
It was from her mother’s retelling of the Old Testament stories of God’s deliverance of the Jews that Mrs. Tubman developed her determination to flee slavery and help others escape with the aid of what came to be known as “the underground railroad.” That was a chain of black or white sympathizers willing to risk all — usually because of their faith — to lend a hand. She became heavily involved with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and gave the church land and funds for “a home for the aged and indigent colored people.”
Better known among today’s population may be Rosa McCauley Parks (born Feb. 4, 1913), the African American woman whose refusal to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, AL, sparked the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She credited her action as growing out of the teachings of Jesus Christ learned in the AME Church. It convinced her that “a heart filled with love could conquer anything, even bigotry,” she wrote in her autobiography.
And of course, there was Dr. Martin Luther King, a third-generation Baptist pastor whose inspiring oratory and insistence on non-violent protests made him the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the modern civil rights movement that cost him his life at the hands of an assassin on April 4, 1968. In a sermon the night before his death, he declared that, “I just want to do God’s will.”
Although Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is on Tuesday the 12th and it is a holiday in many states and communities it is not recognized as a national holiday despite his iconic contribution to the history of freedom for black Americans. Lincoln grew up in an Illinois cabin where the only two books were a Bible and a spelling text, both of which he studied diligently. The influence of the Bible was evident in all of his speeches and in most of his letters and other writings, especially his Proclamation of Emancipation. On the occasion of the issuance of the historic document, the craggy-faced rail-splitter told his cabinet: “I made a solemn vow before God, that if Gen. Lee was driven back from Pennsylvania, I would crown the result by the declaration of freedom to the slaves.” The declaration was based on his biblical faith as expressed in, among other passages, Galatians 3:38 — “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
As for George Washington’s birthday, it now is celebrated on various days in February in order to give workers a long weekend each year. This year it is on Monday the 18th instead of the actual 22nd and it is called Presidents Day in order to be inclusive and not offend the admirers of any other president —like Ronald Reagan or William Henry Harrison whose birthdays also were in February. The man who always has been and still is hailed by most scholars and average Americans not only as a hero of the American Revolutionary War and our first President of the United States but a faithful believer and active churchman as well as the greatest leader in the history of our nation. Except —In the irrational atmosphere of political correctness in recent years, Washington, along with such other great leaders as Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson, is disqualified for any recognition of any kind because — like many of their peers of the times — they owned a handful of slaves or fought on behalf of the South for various reasons, or actually engaged in war against Indians.
There are many other historic events to celebrate in February, though few are controversy free. Among them: Founding of the first public school in Boston in 1635; five of 27 amendments to the Constitution — including the 15th in 1870 giving former slaves the right to vote — were ratified by the states in February. The same month that year they ratified the 16th authorizing the income tax. Others ratified this month are the 11th in 1795 protecting states from lawsuits by non-residents; the 22nd in 1951 limiting a president to two terms and the 25th in 1967 setting the process for selecting a temporary successor to a president who dies or becomes incapacitated in office. Although it was ratified in August of 1920, it was February of 1922 that the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court.
Three states — Massachusetts in 1788, Oregon in 1859 and Arizona in 1912 — joined the union during February and we acquired from Spain in 1819 what now is Florida and from Mexico in 1848 the territory that eventually became seven other states (besides Arizona) while another, Texas, seceded from the union during this month in 1861.
And we haven’t even mentioned Valentine’s Day, the 22nd, maybe to lovers more important than all the other events remembered in February.
(Adon Taft for 48 years was a reporter with The Miami [FL] Herald. He also taught social studies at Miami-Dade Community College. Now retired in Birmingham, AL, he can be reached at [email protected])