Our Freedom Legacy

Last month, Arlene Teed of the Social Action Committee called us to explore the institutionalized evil presented in our common book read, The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This month, Linda Jo Scott honors historic Black leaders who have helped guide our world, nation, and local communities toward freedom. The following article is amended from one of Linda Jo’s weekly columns published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

The legacy of Black leaders over the past two centuries helps us to remember the struggles of those who have gone before us, learn from our shared history, and move together toward the goals of freedom and justice for all.

 I can still remember crying when I heard of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., back in 1968. That was a particularly stressful year, as my brother was about to serve his second year in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. Also, I was pregnant with my second son, and as many women know first-hand, pregnancy has a way of intensifying emotions of all kinds.

Along with my sadness over King’s death, I felt incredibly fortunate to have a special personal memory of hearing him speak in person four years earlier, in 1964, when he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. I was teaching English at Spelman College in Atlanta at that time, and King chose to return to his alma mater, Morehouse College, just across the street from Spelman, to give a speech soon after receiving this highest honor. Faculty members of Spelman were given tickets to this event, and I can still remember walking across the street proudly with my black colleagues who were overflowing with admiration and affection for Morehouse’s all-time most prominent alumnus.

My fellow teachers felt that this event was particularly important, for King was only the third Black to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Sad to say, only eight more Blacks, including Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Barack Obama, have received it since 1964.

King’s assassination date was first recognized as a national holiday in 2000, but unfortunately, it had taken 14 years after 1986 for all 50 states to officially accept it. The holiday is certainly well-established in Battle Creek, however. I was proud to see the many events here to honor King on the 45th anniversary of his assassination. It’s truly impressive that Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center, Bronson Battle Creek Hospital, the 13 churches involved in the JONAH organization, as well as many other area churches, all helped organize various events, aptly titling this week “The Dream Is Now.” Pastor Wyne of the Second Missionary Baptist Church said exactly what I feel about this occasion: “We continue to celebrate this day as an incentive for others to pick up the baton and carry on this work in their own way.”

Battle Creek has long been a city directly involved in the rights of Blacks in this country, going back to the days of Erastus Hussey, the prominent Quaker resident. He directly helped fugitive slaves get from Battle Creek to Marshall, the next stop east on the Underground Railroad route to Canada. Also, while serving in the Michigan legislature in 1852, he introduced a Personal Freedoms Act that restricted the activities of slave catchers. He claimed that over the years, he had helped over 1,000 slaves pass safely through this city. Another prominent black abolitionist, Sojourner Truth, lived here from 1867 to 1883 and is buried here in the Oak Hill cemetery. Just a few years ago, Ed Dwight, a prominent black Michigan resident and artist, created this city’s wonderful Underground Railroad Sculpture (right), which portrays a group of Battle Creek citizens including Erastus Hussey, his wife, and Harriet Tubman, as well as others who helped to free slaves.

Let us all claim the desire to remember those who have struggled for freedom, learn from their legacies, and continue their lofty goals.