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Opinion

This is my black history

Personal stories are at the core of Black History Month. American's should honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but should not forego the average stories in every African-American family in favor of the once-a-century events and leaders in our history.

By Theodore R. Johnson / February 1, 2013

Kalylah Carter, 8, sings Beyonce's "Love on Top" during Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in Panama City, Fla. on Jan. 21. Op-ed contributor Theodore R. Johnson writes: 'The crowning achievements of two remarkable men, President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King, are inspirational, but fall short of the power found in the incredible stories of the everyday African-American family.'

Heather Leiphart/Panama City News Herald/AP

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Alexandria, Va.

Observations of Black History Month, which begins today, will no doubt pay special homage to two events celebrating milestone anniversaries this year: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. These seminal developments in American history fundamentally reshaped the nation, and thus it makes sense for them to be the chief focus this month. But they should not be the only one.

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The crowning achievements of two remarkable men, President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. King, are inspirational, but fall short of the power found in the incredible stories of the everyday African-American family.

As evidence, we need look no further than President Obama – who used the Lincoln and King Bibles to take the inaugural oath last month – and the chosen title for his 1995 memoir: “Dreams from my Father.” Mr. Obama’s story is remarkable in many ways, just as the backstories of many African-American families are.

My dreams come from the same place. One of my family’s stories is of my great-grandparents’ admiration for a president and the fulfillment of their hopes for their descendants. In many ways, this story has guided my life’s journey.

The story begins when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt then ascended to the nation’s highest office, and arguably his first act of courage as president occurred that same year, on Oct. 16. On that night, at the personal invitation of President Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington walked out of the Blue Room of the White House and dined with the president and first lady, marking the first time an African-American had ever done so.

Much of the still-segregated nation was in an uproar when word of the dinner was made public. The US senator from South Carolina, Benjamin Tillman, said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that [n-word] will necessitate our killing a thousand [n-words] in the South before they learn their place again.”

Elsewhere in South Carolina, however, sharecropper Will and homemaker Annie Johnson were so inspired by the president’s gesture of equality that they named their son (my grandfather) Theodore Roosevelt Johnson in his honor.

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