Students, faculty, staff and community residents received a message about black history in a larger global context Feb. 5 at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Memphis.
Frederick Knight, chair of the history department at Morehouse College, kicked off the college’s 89th Black History Month celebration, with an address entitled, “Citizens of the World: Black Visionaries and Civil Rights Actors on a Global Stage.”
“Going Home” was a key phrase in his speech. Africans were separated from their families and their homeland and were forced into slavery either by war or being kidnapped, Knight said.
“This separation and isolation from their homeland and country caused African Americans to seek home, to seek ways to stitch things back together,” he said.
Knight focused on four civil rights activists, including W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Delany, Howard Thurman, and Maya Angelou, who through their travels, presented black history in a larger global context.
Knight said W.E.B. DuBois was his favorite scholar.
“DuBois was the first African American to receive his Ph.D. at Harvard University in the 1940s and 50s,” he said. “He understood the use of imagery in making his case, shaming America for denying civil rights via the caste system. He said use publicity to let the world know what was going on in the South.”
Martin Delany and Howard Thurman were also key people in his speech.
“Delany’s political evolution can be partially explained by looking at the national mood about race and citizenship during the late 1840s and 1850s,” Knight said. “He thought black people deserved full citizenship rights based on the argument of black people’s accomplishments in skills, labor and military service,” he said.
Thurman, as Knight explained, compared the caste system of South Asia to the Atlantic slave trade. He mentioned that Thurman reached out to the people in Asia while Gandhi called them “Children of God.”
“Thurmond uncovered the black experience to a larger global struggle and performed most of his work in the ministry,” Knight said. “He drew a distinction between Christianity and its practice in America and India. He asked ‘How can Christians, children of God, capture and hold slaves?’ He transformed the teaching of religion at Howard University.”
Maya Angelou’s works, like “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” were influenced by her travels to places like Ghana, Knight said.
“Africans saw Americans as a product of the slave trade and mourned for their lost people whenever they saw people like Angelou. They were sad,” Knight said.
Knight says African Americans still have work to do.
“Present day political activists must step on the stage for civil rights,” he said. “There are certain key issues that African Americans must acknowledge, voting, poverty and our faith-based communities. Civil rights issues were based in the church in the cities of Montgomery, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Memphis and Birmingham.
The event, sponsored by the Center for African and African-American Studies, featured the Kashmir Society, a newly-formed group comprised of freshmen leaders.