Chuck Williams: A little history lesson from a history maker

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 18, 2013 

In mid-sentence Andrew Young paused.

The former preacher, U.N. ambassador, congressman, Atlanta mayor, Civil Rights movement leader and Olympic organizer had just delivered a 30-minute history lesson Monday morning in the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.

He was the keynote speaker at the annual Black History Observance breakfast in Columbus. It was interesting because much of the history Young talked about he also witnessed and helped write.

But without warning, Young stopped near the end of his talk.

“It’s not black history,” he said. “It’s American history, and it’s world history.”

Amen, preacher.

We get in trouble when we start putting labels on things that need no labels.

The rulings by federal judges that paved the way for the demise of segregation — the marches, the bombings, the boycotts and the voter-registration drives — are all American history, and should be treated as such.

We should all march into the future with a grasp of history.

Without history, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Be weary of those who want to rewrite history.

Young made an interesting point when he recounted a conversation he had with President Jimmy Carter. And it had to do with the history of civil rights — here and elsewhere.

They were talking about South Africa and its struggles. Carter, a peanut farmer, Navy officer and son of the American South, indicated he didn’t know much about the South African struggle.

“Yes, you do,” Young said, drawing Carter back to his personal experiences and history. “It is about racism and poverty.” It’s about history.

We should embrace our history — and learn from it. Which brings us to Phenix City and its checkered past.

For nearly six decades, many of the people from Phenix City have run from their city’s history. It’s not pleasant to talk about the gambling, prostitution, lawlessness and assassination that helped define the community in the first half of the last century.

But in that history is also the story of good people standing up to evil. There is value in the stories of Hugh Bentley, the sporting goods store owner who led the Russell Betterment Association against the corruption. There is value in the story of Albert Patterson, the Alabama attorney general-elect who was shot to death after he was elected on the platform of cleaning up his hometown.

It is fitting that there may finally be a museum where Phenix City’s history — the good and the bad — is put into context.

The great value of history is you can — and must — put the pieces into context, where all can learn from the triumphs and the missteps.

Let’s embrace history. And tell the story accurately for all of those who can learn from it.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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