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Black History Month: Reflections on a lifetime of Change

February 18, 2021

Black History Month: Reflections on a lifetime of Change

Chattanooga native Elijah Cameron was just a teenager back in 1963 when he, along with 250,000 people, gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s now iconic “I Have a Dream Speech.” There was a massive protest march for jobs and freedom and the challenges faced by Black people, a century after emancipation. Today, at the age of 74, Elijah talks about the importance of February being Black History Month and what he has learned from his decades of trying to make life better for everyone.

I talked to him on the phone from his office at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga, where he is the museum’s Director of Community Relations. Below are Elijah’s thoughts, in his own words, about being a black in America and what contributions African-Americans have made to our country.

Elijah Cameron

“I look at February and Black History Month a little differently than most people. I feel we should be celebrating the contributions that black people have made in this country year-round. While I understand what Carter G. Woodson, the brainchild behind Black History Month was trying to do, I personally think African Americans need to be a lot truer to themselves and understand firsthand the all too often neglected accomplishments that Black people have made in every part of our society. This thinking needs to be part of conversations we have with different people who are in authority to make laws and change laws. This conversation needs to also have a bigger imprint in history books for young people.

I have worn several hats in Chattanooga during my professional career. I have been involved in everything from healthcare to firefighting. But in everything I have ever tried to accomplish, I stress the need for everyone to look at what we are doing as one community, one goal, not just black or white. I don’t see color. I see everyone as a person capable in some way of making our community and lives better. If we don’t succeed as a unified force, we will never make any progress.

I was in the eleventh grade when I first got involved in the civil rights struggle. I went to Washington in the summer of 1963 with a group of people. To be honest with you, I didn’t really grasp the true meaning of what I was a part of that day. But as I grew older, I began to take notice of the injustices and inequalities in the communities around me. I began to get involved with more marches and protests trying to fight for integration and fairness in places like Mobile and Anniston, Alabama. I tried desperately to educate my black friends about being proud of who they are and the positive roles that our people have played on the global stage.

I unfortunately never had a chance to meet Dr. King. I did have a chance to meet Reverend King’s personal attorney, Fred Gray, an activist and preacher who practiced law in Alabama. He also represented Rosa Parks. 

I never was involved in any of the Chattanooga sit-ins that took place at several businesses. I did however, attend a February meeting in Memphis where Dr. King first went to that city to get involved in the sanitation strike in 1968. The strike was over years of poor pay and dangerous working conditions among black employees.

As a community, Chattanooga still has a ways to go. I’m not saying it is a long road to cover. We as a city have made tremendous strides in building racial harmony. Chattanooga, has for the most part, been filled with leaders who have taken the time to listen to struggling communities and its people. I must say, that sometimes a leader’s actions may have been slower than I would have liked, but listening is certainly a great first step. I do think we are getting healthier every day.

My advice for the younger generations of all colors and ethnic groups is to know your history. Talk more to one another. Children are the greatest gift to emulate. They rarely see different colors among people and seem to be accepting of everyone. We can learn a lot from kids. If we ever truly want to accomplish goals in our city and country, we need to start loving people more. Start accepting people for who they are in life and look past any values or habits that aren’t similar to yours. Stop being so angry. Be authentic. Be a listener.”

~ Jed Mescon, Community Outreach Liaison 

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