"This library is not for coloreds."
That's what Ron McNair, a 9-year-old black S.C. kid, was told at his local public library in 1959, his older brother Carl McNair recalls.
We black folks were "colored" in those days. As an African-American who grew up at about the same time as Ronald, I remember the peculiar etiquette of legal racial segregation in the South.
One could often run up against a less formal but no less degrading de facto segregation by some hotels, restaurants, amusement parks and other public accommodations in the North, too.
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The child was too excited to learn about advanced science and calculus to be put off. The librarian threatened to call the police and his parents if he didn't leave. Instead, he climbed up on the counter and sat down, his brother told an interviewer for NPR's StoryCorps, and said, "I'll wait."
He did. After two police officers decided there was no disturbance and little Ron's mother Pearl McNair promised to pay for the books if they were not returned, the librarian handed them over. After a gentle reminder from his mother, he said, "Thank you, ma'am."
Flash forward. Ronald Ervin McNair is better known today for the tragedy that ended his life. He died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 25 years ago on Jan. 28.
In his hometown, Lake City, the renovated building that housed that library is being renamed after him.
Appropriately, the observations come as Black History Month events begin. That also means a return of arguments - some of them more polite than others - about whether we still need Black History Month at all, especially now that the nation has an African-American president.
Yet, every time I begin to think we can relax special efforts to remember this nation's grand racial epic of sorrow and triumph, I am jerked alert by events like some recent ones that show how easily history can be forgotten.
For example, there was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's recent mythologizing of the nation's founders at an Iowans for Tax Relief rally.
"How unique in all of the world, that one nation ... was the resting point for people from groups all across the world," she said, getting a bit carried away from reality. "It didn't matter the color of their skin, it didn't matter their language, it didn't matter their economic status. ... Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn't that remarkable? It's absolutely remarkable."
It was remarkable, all right, but the slaves owned by many of the founders, including some of our early presidents, would not recognize the nation's early days as she described them.
Or there is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's December recollections in the Weekly Standard of growing up in the midst of the civil rights revolution in his state: "I just don't remember it as being that bad," he said.
After a backlash of bad publicity, Barbour issued an apologetic acknowledgement that, "It was a difficult and painful era for Mississippi, the rest of the country and especially African-Americans who were persecuted in that time." Sure, Barbour said, he remembered seeing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1962. The infamous bloodshed of that period in Mississippi must have slipped his mind.
Barbour and Bachmann, increasingly prominent players in national politics, have made no secret of their desires to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Fortunately for them, the contest doesn't require a history test.
It does not help to have history textbooks like those that were distributed to Virginia fourth-graders only to be scrapped in October. Someone noticed glaring errors, such as a claim that thousands of African-Americans fought for the South during the Civil War.
Similar claims have been made by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who seek to play down slavery's role in secession.
No, black history isn't the only history that Americans need to remember, but it's a good place to start.
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