Saturday, Apr 19, 2014
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Taft: February is packed with history


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February, though short on days, not only is Black History Month and includes Presidents Day but it is packed with more American history than most months with a full ration of 31 days.

For starters, the first public school was founded in Boston in February of 1635 and, over the years, four presidents - three of them among the best remembered of all the 43 - were born in February. Among other February events of note:

??Five of 27 amendments to the Constitution - including the 15th in 1870, giving former slaves the right to vote - were ratified by the states in February. That same month that year they ratified the 16th authorizing an income tax.

Other amendments (only 26 of them actually apply since the 21st amendment repealed the 18th prohibiting the possession or sale of alcoholic drinks) approved in February are the 11th in 1795, protecting states from lawsuits by non-residents; the 22nd in 1951 limiting a president to two terms; and the 25th in 1967 setting the process for selecting a temporary successor to a president who dies or becomes incapacitated in office.

Although it was ratified in August of 1920, it was in February of 1922 that the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

??Three states - Massachusetts in 1788, Oregon in 1859 and Arizona in 1912 - joined the union in February, and we acquired from Spain in 1819 what now is Florida and from Mexico in 1848 the territory that eventually became seven other states while another, Texas, seceded from the union during this month in 1861;

??The most celebrated of February's historic events are the birthdays of George Washington in 1732 and Abraham Lincoln in 1809, the celebration of which is combined into President's Day this year on the 17th, and Black History Month, which includes the birthdays of such abolitionist and civil rights leaders as former slaves Frederick Douglass in 1818 and Harriet Tubman, of "underground railroad" fame, in 1838; W.E.B. DuBois in 1868, a Harvard-trained historian and sociologist who was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in February of 1909; and Rosa McCauley Parks, in 1903, the courageous seamstress whose bus-seat protest in Montgomery, Ala., brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into prominence in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

What seldom is mentioned in today's celebration of these leaders and events is the important role of religious faith in most of those lives and events.

Nearly all of our presidents have been men of strong faith, but Washington, Lincoln and Ronald Regan (along with William Henry Harrison the other February-born occupants of the white House) were among those best known for their outspoken Christian beliefs and practices.

Washington, a warden in the Anglican (now Episcopal) parish where the family worshipped, was known for praying and fasting for days at a time in seeking God's guidance both as a general asking God's grace on his troops and as our first elected president asking the nation to join in a day of prayer and thanksgiving.

Lincoln, raised by a Baptist mother and encouraged by his Presbyterian wife, has been described by historians as having a more detailed knowledge of the Bible than any other and is quoted as saying he authored the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in answer to prayer.

Reagan, known as "The Great Communicator," developed those skills as a teenaged Sunday School teacher and speaker at congregational events in his Illinois hometown Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and as an adult continued to develop his faith and ability to express it in the Presbyterian Church. The world view shaped there led him famously to label the Soviet Union's atheistic communism as an "evil empire" and often to quote John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have eternal life," in public addresses.

Much of black history in this country is couched in the Christian faith of most of their leaders like Douglass who came to know God as his Father through the kind explanation of a white Methodist minister in the Baltimore area. The slave went on to become an educated and fiery speaker and writer for the abolitionist movement based in the churches of the Northeast. He later became the first African-American to hold a high government office - minister-resident and consul general to the republic of Haiti - and said that from the time he came to know God and began to read His word, "I saw the world in a new light and my great concern was to have everybody converted . and (for himself) to have a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible."

It was from her mother's retelling of the Old Testament stories of deliverance that Mrs. Tubman developed her determination to flee slavery and help others escape with the aid of what came to be known as "the underground railroad," a chain of black and white sympathizers willing to risk all - usually because of their faith - to lend a hand. She became heavily involved with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and gave the church land and money for a "home for aged and indigent colored people."

DeBois, one of the few blacks among the white socialists who officially organized the NAACP, was not particularly religious himself but was friends with Rabbi Emil G. Hirsh, who provided a spiritual motivation to the movement. And as the organization spread to local chapters, particularly in the South, many of the leaders were black clergymen.

As for Parks, she grew up in the AME Church where, she wrote in her autobiography, she learned the teachings of Jesus Christ that convinced her that "a heart filled with love could conquer anything, even bigotry." Those teachings gave her the courage, in 1963, to peacefully resist Jim Crow laws requiring people of color to move to the back of the bus.

That's where a young Baptist pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, came to the fore as the Christian voice of the non-violent (though much violence was perpetrated against the protesters) Civil Rights movement. He said: " I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."

Like many we honor this month, King, whom we also honored on his special day in January, said: "I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go to the mountain. And I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land! I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land."

Adon Taft was religion editor of The Miami Herald for 37 of his 50 years as a journalist. He taught social sciences at Miami Dade Community College and authored the chapters on religion in the three-volume history, "Florida from Indian Trails to the Space Age," edited by Charlton W. Tebeau and Ruby Leach Carson. He lives in Brooksville and can be reached at adontaft@yahoo.com.

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