Black History Month 1992 comes at a grim time. The observances begun by Carter G. Woodson early in this century usually serve to remind blacks and whites of so much that has been ignored in the diorama presented as American History.
Now, however, a deeper reading of black history is in order. With political majorities in this country calling ''liberal'' ideology outmoded and many younger blacks believing civil-rights battles are all in the past, it is time for frank appraisals and blunt recognitions: Civil rights is a battle that has never ended in the 500-year history of American settlement. New plateaus have opened in the economic arena, as the business-minded younger blacks have said, requiring new approaches to the opportunities now open to African Americans.
But a plateau always stands on some foundation. Frank appraisals of civil rights in the 1990s necessarily must lead to an honest recognition that large components of the ruling white majority are working hard to reverse the century's major advances. Without meaningful civil-rights enforcement, nothing much will happen to benefit blacks in business or in any other sphere, and it is long past time black America's junior scions figured that out.
As always, much of the action begins in the courtroom. An open letter by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., chief judge emeritus of the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, taken from the November 29 Pennsylvania Law Review, offers cogent lessons. Judge Higginbotham was talking directly to Clarence Thomas about stepping up to the Supreme Court, but he clearly was speaking to many others, white as well as black.
Rebuking Justice Thomas' past attacks on civil-rights leaders -- which, it must be acknowledged, drew sympathy from many younger blacks -- Judge Higginbotham challenged Mr. Thomas to ''rethink the great issues the court has confronted in the past.'' Be your own man, he said, but ''the first in the series of questions you must ask yourself is this: Beyond your own admirable personal drive, what were the primary forces . . . that made your major achievements possible?'' He suggested four areas of inquiry:
* ''The impact of the work of civil-rights lawyers and
organizations on your life;
* ''Other than having picked a few individuals to be their favorite colored person, what is it that the conservatives of each generation have done that has been of significant benefit to African Americans, women or other minorities;
* ''The impact of the eradication of racial barriers in the voting on your own confirmation;
* ''The impact of civil-rights victories in the area of housing and privacy on your personal life.''
Judge Higginbotham asked Mr. Thomas whether he thought he ever would have gotten out of Pin Point, Georgia, where his relatives worked as laborers, without an effective NAACP to fight for him.
''If the NAACP had not been lobbying, picketing, protesting and politicking for a 1964 Civil Rights Act, would Monsanto Chemical Company have opened their doors to you in 1977? If Title VII had not been enacted might not American companies still continue to discriminate on the basis of race, gender and national origin?''
What that would mean for those younger blacks climbing corporate ladders today would be devastating. It was not for nothing that the Labor Department's ''Glass Ceiling'' study found so few blacks at the top of corporate America.
Noting Justice Thomas' self-description as a black ''conservative,'' Judge Higginbotham reminded him that it was white conservatives who screamed ''segregation now, segregation forever'' during the civil-rights fight, attacking the Warren Court because of Brown v. Board of Education.
''In the 1960s, it was the conservatives, including the then-senatorial candidate from Texas, George Bush, the then-governor from California, Ronald Reagan, and the omnipresent Strom Thurmond, who argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional.''
''If the conservative agenda of the 1950s, '60s and '70s had been implemented,'' the judge asked, ''what would have been the results of the important Supreme Court cases that now protect your rights and the rights of millions of other Americans who now can no longer be discriminated against because of their race, religion, national origin or physical disabilities?''
Good question. Others who should have to answer it have not been nominated to the Supreme Court. We may see tragic answers yet, if the conservative agenda now working its way through the courts continues unabated.