Jimmie Hollis was 19 years old when he stood at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and listened with hope as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
The speech inspired Hollis, now a Millville resident who would go on to spend 25 years in the Air Force, return to his hometown in Indiana and start a local business in the black community.
He would marry and have two children — one who became a lawyer and the other, a physical therapist.
Now, more than 50 years later, Hollis, who considers himself an American of African descent, said he still derives hope from King’s life but believes there is more to be done.
He also doesn’t believe the celebration of Black History Month, which begins today, focuses on the right messages regarding the black experience in America.
“The many good accomplishments of black Americans over the years are overshadowed by negativity and emphasis on segregation, Jim Crow South and the difficult days of the push for civil rights,” Hollis said.
The meaning, purpose and necessity of Black History Month has been debated in recent years at a national level. Hollis is in the camp of those challenging it.
Count Ralph Hunter, of Atlantic City, among the opposition.
Hunter, director of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, says the month is the busiest time of year for him, with visitors flocking to the exhibits, the latest of which focuses on the accomplishments of African Americans in Atlantic City — the first doctors, lawyers and other success stories in the city’s historic black neighborhoods.
Icons such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X all made a place for today’s African-Americans, and that history needs to keep being told, Hunter said.
Hunter said black people have worked hard to have the month. He doesn’t understand any suggestion it’s no longer relevant.
“It’s important we have Black History Month, because people from all races and colors come to our museum to see our history. They come all year, but they really want to get there for February. I live my life for the month of February,” Hunter said.
“It is extremely important to be able to share this information with generation after generation. If we don’t have this history and information for generations to come, it will be lost. All of these different eras of our life are important to keep talking about,” he said.
Rutgers Camden Law professor Earl Matz, PhD., who is white, said he has heard the argument that the month is related to the idea of victimization, “and that we have to forget about victimization and be self-reliant.”
“I have heard the discussion that we have to stop saying it’s all because of racism. The answer is: There is racism in American society. What are you going to do about it? You have to deal with it,” he said.
It’s a debate, he said, that whites come at with a decided handicap, because none of them can understand how African-Americans feel.
Matz, 64, said when he was in elementary school, there wasn’t a lot of discussion about the roles African-Americans played, at least in his community. There was more discussion of notable black Americans such as W. E. B. Du Bois in the schools in African-American communities.
Before February was named Black History Month, its predecessor was Negro History Week, during the second week of February. Negro History Week was created in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. That week was chosen to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Woodson created Negro History Week because black Americans and their accomplishments were largely excluded from school curriculum, according to Stacy Swimp, a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 black leadership network.
Now, 88 years later, Black History Month fails to recognize a long list of accomplished black men and women of today and of the past, said Hollis, who is a member of Project 21.
“Black figures that have made strides to better themselves and contribute to society should be focused on and celebrated instead. And there should not be a Black History Month, but instead an American History Month,” Hollis said.
Black history is American history, and there is no need for separation any longer, he said.
“Black History Month doesn’t bring together; it divides. It’s like a sore that’s healing and you keep pulling that scab off. There is so much more positive that we have accomplished, experienced and built in this country, and that never gets told. That’s the other black history,” said Hollis, who hosts the conservative talk radio show “Patriot’s Corner” Saturdays on WSNJ-AM 1240.
Hollis said he has found allies and support in other Project 21 members.
One of those members is Joe Hicks, of Los Angeles, who is the vice president of Community Advocates Inc., a privately funded L.A.-based political think tank. Hicks was the executive director of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — the civil rights group formed by Martin Luther King Jr.
“Folks were still getting lynched when I was a kid. We’ve come a long way, and America has done a phenomenal job of moving forward,” said 70-year-old Hicks.
The son of a mother from Barbados and an Irish father from Oklahoma, Hicks supported Hollis’ contention that Black History Month does concentrate on a narrative of victimizations.
“The time has come that it’s old and tired and shop-worn. It’s time to have some fresh conversations about these issues. At this time, we should be building a new narrative, and unfortunately, Jim Crow, segregation, institutional racism, that all gets trucked out for Black History Month,” Hicks said.
“It’s not our history. It is the history of this country. It is quintessentially American history. I won’t argue that in the earlier period of this nation’s history there was a need to have Black History Month, but as race diminished in the lives of black Americans at some point, what is the point?” he asked.
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