When I think of history, I think of studying what’s happened long ago. Of learning about everything that led up to now. In grade school, I spent a lot of time learning Ohio history. In high school, I learned about American history. In college, I made up for some notable gaps in earlier studies by specializing in African American history.
Having knowledge of the past is a necessary step in my approach to learning about the present. But I think I might have limited myself by spending so much of the time looking backwards.
A recent reading of a biography of the Wright brothers had me marveling at the speed at which advances were made in flight. For a stretch, the inventors were literally setting and breaking new world records multiple times a day. They were making history in real-time and everyone knew it. History for them wasn’t the past but the present.
Last night I attended the 101st NAACP Spingarn Award Dinner, part of the 107th Annual Convention of the NAACP. The Spingarn Award is given for “the highest or noblest achievement by an American Negro during the preceding year or years.”
Past winners of this award include W.E.B. DuBois, George Washington Carver, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marian Anderson, Richard Wright, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Medgar Evers, Sammy Davis, Jr., Hank Aaron, Rosa Parks, Lena Horne, Colin Powell, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones and Sidney Poitier.
Those history classes I was so intent on taking? These are people I learned about.
Judge Nathaniel Jones was awarded the Spingarn Award this year. Jones has been a vocal proponent of civil rights in both the U.S. and South Africa. He served as Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland and later as Assistant General Counsel to President Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission. For nine years, Jones served as NAACP general counsel, which had him arguing cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jones, after an appointment from President Jimmy Carter, served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for 23 years.
Jones has earned a space in our history books, but he’s more than just a figure of our past. He is still advocating for civil rights through his work on the Board of Directors of KnowledgeWorks. Through the publication of his recent biography, Answering the Call: An Autobiography of the Modern Struggle to End Racial Discrimination in America, he’s helping to inform the present and future by sharing lessons of the past.
In his acceptance speech of the Spingarn Award, Judge Jones said, “Let me pledge to you tonight that as long as I have breath in my body and my lungs are functioning and I can speak, my advice will be to all of us to stay focused on the real threat, and to resist all efforts to nullify the gains that have been made, the remedies that have put in place that give meaning to the laws that the constitution permits to be enacted.”
The Spingarn Award might have been in recognition of Jones’ past achievements, but the effect his work is still occurring. He’s still writing history. In real-time.