Oped: Civil Rights movement a proud moment in history

Matt Helfrich

February is known for its bad weather, Valentine's Day and growing interest in college hoops. More importantly, February is Black History Month, and it's important for our country to take some time to reflect on the importance African Americans have played in American history and what our country and the world can learn from this experience.

FILE - In this May 17, 1967 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King speaks at the University of California administration building in Berkeley, Calif. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Americans, "Where do we go from here?" His warning of chaos or community squarely confronted racism, and marked a shift from his emphasis on nonviolence to a demand for full economic and political equality. Younger generations of black activists say they prefer the pointed, more forceful King to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning pacifist who preached love over hate.   (AP Photo, File)

One of the darkest aspects of our collective history is the institutional racism and discrimination that African Americans experienced during most of our country's existence. As a result, I think it's more than reasonable to argue that one the proudest moments in our history is the Civil Rights movement. A race that suffered discrimination and legal inequality was able to achieve equal rights through a peaceful movement that emphasized love, not hate, as the impetus for change. This is a unique accomplishment. There is no equivalent experience in world history where a specific race, subjected to persecution and discrimination, was able to achieve equal rights without resorting to violence. This is why the Civil Rights movement is not only a significant accomplishment in black history and American history, but world history as well.

I hope our government and the international community applies some of the lessons from the Civil Rights movement as we address existing policy issues. As tempting as it is to want to beat other countries or opposing political parties with a proverbial "tack hammer" as a means to resolve issues, the Civil Rights movement exemplifies what we can achieve by using our heads and our hearts. I wonder if the Palestinians, especially the tens of thousands still living in refugee camps, would be better off today if the leaders of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority would have relied more on negotiation and less on terrorism.

In a world where government policy is still influenced by religion, we should be skeptical of political leaders that interpret or bend religion to support policies that exclude people because of race, sex, or sexual preference. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement relied heavily on Christianity to gain support for their political goals, but they emphasized its message of love and acceptance of all people in pursuit of equal rights.

In the end, the majority of Americans accepted the Civil Rights legislation because the leaders of the movement changed opinions with a compelling message, not a pistol to the head or bomb strapped to the chest. Permanent change will never be achieved through force, as the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe exemplifies. As Generation X becomes the prominent leaders and voices of our country, we should remember the example of the Civil Rights movement as we pursue lasting changes that make America and our world a better place to live. King said it better than I ever could — "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." 

— Matt Helfrich is a York Dispatch guest contributor and a resident of Harleysville, Pennsylvania.