Gospel music, a speech by Professor of Economics Glenn Loury and a surprise appearance by Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 marked the second annual Black History Month celebration at the State House last night. The celebration, which also featured a performance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, was attended by nearly 60 state legislators and local community leaders.
Chafee’s short speech, which followed a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by the administrator of fine arts of the Providence Public School District, set the tone for the event.
“We must set aside this time to aspire to a vision of true equality for all Americans,” Chafee said.
In the Senate session immediately preceding the celebration, Sen. Harold Metts, D-Providence, introduced the annual resolution calling for the recognition of February as Black History Month in Rhode Island. The resolution has passed every year since 1976.
In the resolution, Metts — the second African American elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly — stressed President Obama’s election and his “message of hope” as indicative of progress for African Americans.
“Black History Month is a wonderful time of year to recognize the positive contributions of everyone who helped to build this country,” Metts told The Herald. “The contributions of African Americans throughout history have been important. Black history is American history.”
“This month is a reminder that we stand on great shoulders of all the people who have fought for civil rights. Our generation needs to be reminded that many have fought for the freedoms that we have,” Senate President Pro Tempore Juan Pichardo, D-Providence, said at the event.
Loury highlighted institutionalized discrimination in the criminal justice system and inner-city schools in his remarks, calling for a renewed commitment to social activism.
“Yes, we’ve elected Barack Obama — but because he’s black, he has to take a low profile on racial issues. Because he was elected, people are inclined to pat themselves on the back and say, ‘See, America’s doing just fine,’” he said. “Let us not be so complacent, so satisfied, so smugly content. … Let us look carefully at our society and not leave anyone behind.”
Loury told The Herald he is “not a big fan” of Black History Month.
“A month is both way too long and not long enough to look at black history in the context of American history. On one hand, how much are you going to talk about? You can’t cover a different subject every day. On the other hand, the examination of black history should not be confined to a single month,” Loury said. “It’s important to be aware of black history not only in the month of February.”
The celebration was sponsored by the Rhode Island General Assembly and the Rhode Island Black and Latino Caucus.
“African Americans and Latinos have many issues in common. Both face poverty and high dropout rates. Both live in the same neighborhoods and face similar economic challenges,” said Metts, the vice chair of the Black and Latino Caucus.
Doris De Los Santos, the head of the Rhode Island Latino Civic Fund and the Latino Political Action Committee, attended the event to “show support and to celebrate the history that the black community represents in the state.” She said she sees an opportunity for social progress if the two minority communities work together.
“The change that we fight for is an equalizer. … What makes us different is how we see ourselves, and that reflects back on how we see each other,” she said.
Metts agreed, adding that he supports legislation dealing with discriminatory foreclosures, exploitative loans, criminal record expungement and equal employment opportunities.
“We haven’t met with the new governor about these issues yet, but I believe that the will for action comes from the top,” Metts said. “Meet with him, and things will begin to change.”