By BERNICE TELL
Stressing the importance of personal responsibility, Eric H. Holder Jr., U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, on Feb. 5 delivered the keynote address for African American History Month at the Library.
The theme of this year's celebration, "African American Civil Rights: A Reappraisal," was developed by the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History Inc.
Speaking to a packed Mumford Room audience, the 46-year-old Mr. Holder said, "In discussing black history we must be cognizant of its current nature."
"History can be used as a tool to understand a present that at times seems frightening and illogical, "The seeds of our inner cities' present distress can be found in the way this nation has dealt with its black inhabitants over the years. But this same population has done much to contribute to its present situation."
Before introduceing the speaker, Dr. Billington noted the many African American cultural treasures housed at the Library and saluted the contributions of his African American colleagues. He also discussed the Library's plans to mount a major African American exhibition, in the spring of 1998, based on the Library's collections.
The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia is responsible for prosecuting local as well as federal crime and heads the largest office of federal prosecutors in the country. Eric Holder was born in New York City in 1951, attended public schools there, and in 1969 graduated with a Regents Scholarship from Stuyvesant High School. Majoring in American history, he graduated from Columbia College in 1973 and received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1976. While studying law, Holder clerked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. Upon graduation, he moved to Washington and in 1988 was appointed by President Reagan to serve as a D.C. Superior Court Judge, a position he held for five years. In 1993 President Clinton appointed Holder to his current position. He is an active member of Concerned Black Men, a volunteer organization dedicated to working with disadvantaged black youth in the nation's capital.
"Black America stands today at a crossroads," Mr. Holder said. "A valiant past filled with courage and struggle is being replaced by irresponsible behavior and passive acceptance."
He told his listeners that African Americans must confront the problems of crime and violence in inner cities. Specifically, he noted that although young black men comprise 1 percent of America's population, they make up 18 percent of the victims of violent crime. Today, he said, blacks are being victimized by blacks and noted that 90 percent of black homicide victims nationwide die at the hands of blacks. He called the situation a "truly sad" chapter in black history.
Mr. Holder focused on two major problems in the black community: the AIDS epidemic and the surge of unwed, teenage mothers. "Sexual conduct is voluntary and can be controlled. ... By being more responsible these problems could be largely cured."
Citing statistics showing that unwed women are giving birth to 67 percent of the black babies born in the United States, he noted an even more serious situation in some parts of Washington, where 80 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers. "This problem tears at the very fabric of the black community."
"There is a direct link between poverty and the social problems that so bedevil us and at least part of the poverty problem is self-inflicted and can be controlled by self-restraint." He continued, "We focus on women as if they created children without the assistance of men," and recalled that when he was a Superior Court judge, almost every young black criminal defendant who came before him had no father in his life. He said that boys need male role models in the home if they are to grow up to be responsible men. And he urged African American men to embrace family values.
Turning to the 1960s and '70s, he said, "Today, we would not recognize the America that existed before the civil rights movement." He reminded his audience of the earlier years of separate facilities, segregated schools, poll taxes and, worst of all, the exclusion of blacks from the mainstream of American life. He referred to this period as "American apartheid."
He noted the strong link between blacks and the rest of American society and predicted that the problems of African Americans of today may be an indication of where the rest of the nation is headed tomorrow. For example, 30 percent of white babies are now born to unwed young mothers, and the teenage violence of the inner cities has traveled to the suburbs. According to Mr. Holder, social problems cannot be isolated; a problem affecting one group will spread to others. Black history is America's history, and black problems are America's problems.
The fact that America needs an African American History Month testifies to another problem. American history, as taught in schools today, is "divorced" from the true role played by blacks, he said. "Americans should begin to focus on the history of black citizens. Recognition of major black figures must become part of the standard curriculum in our schools." Although African Americans by the thousands faced lynchings, racial discrimination and economic hardship, they have achieved notable and significant accomplishments. Mr. Holder cited the names of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King Jr., Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Ralph Ellison, Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson and Rosa Parks, among others.
"We owe them all a debt of gratitude... We must appreciate and acknowledge our unique black past."
Ms. Tell is a Washington free-lance writer.