Honor to black legend turned into bitter irony

WILEY A. HALL

October 21, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore was named in honor of one of the legends of the civil rights movement. Mr. Mitchell was a tough, brilliant, hard-working man who became known as the "101st Senator" for his lobbying efforts in Congress on behalf of black Americans.

And every day, young black Americans in leg irons and shackles are brought into the courthouse that bears Mr. Mitchell's name. Their expressions are sullen, their eyes are dull. Many are charged with senseless, sometimes heinous crimes. With bowed heads and slumped shoulders, they shuffle to and from the holding cells in the basement of the courthouse.

You look at these young men and women and wonder: Do they have any idea who Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. was? Are they aware how hard Mr. Mitchell and others of his generation fought to open doors for them? Would this knowledge have made a difference?

The renaming of the courthouse was conceived nearly a decade ago as an honor to one of Baltimore's most noble native sons. But in many ways, the daily parade of black felons has turned that honor into a bitter irony.

It is an irony that is not lost on black historians.

"Our children today have had no evidence of who they are and where they come from," says historian David Dennard. "They have had no exposure to what black Americans in the past have been able to accomplish for themselves and, thus, they have no idea of what they are capable of.

"This is what white Americans get from history," he says. "When you think about it, all of American history is packaged like a fairy tale, designed to inflate their egos, give white Americans a sense of possibility and potential. Their history does not accomplish that for us."

Dr. Dennard, a professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., is here to participate in the 78th annual convention of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. His words echo the sentiments of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who founded the association in 1915. Dr. Woodson is best known as the father of "Negro History" and as author of the 1933 book, "The Mis-education of the Negro."

Dr. Woodson wrote: "The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worthwhile, depresses and crushes the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability to his people.

"To educate the Negro," continued Dr. Woodson, "we must find out exactly what his background is, what he is today, and what his possibilities are."

Visionary words. But 60 years after they were published, black children continue to lag far behind whites in academic achievement. Was the basic premise -- that black children would be moved to achieve if they knew of their history -- basically flawed?

"What happened," answers Dr. Dennard, "is that the integration of American history didn't happen. In fact, when we were in segregated schools blacks were taught about the positive accomplishments of our people. After desegregation, the focus shifted to what was done to us; it became a study of blacks as victims.

"Black kids today have a strong sense of anger, bitterness and outrage at this victimization," continues Dr. Dennard. "But they have less of a sense that they have the power to do something about it. I believe that this is what accounts for a lot of the violence we see today."

At its convention this week, leaders of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History are expected to sound a clarion call to action -- just as the leaders of the NAACP and the National Urban League sounded similar wake-up calls at their national conventions recently.

"We nearly let our institutions die," says Dr. Dennard. "We acted as though the battle was won. Now we see that we need our institutions more today than ever before."

Someday, perhaps, young blacks in Baltimore will acquire this historical perspective and will pay the ultimate tribute to Mr. Mitchell: The courthouse will stand empty.

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