Ethnic Observances Create Better Understanding, Foster Respect
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 13, 2000 Ethnic and gender observances are needed as long as discrimination and bigotry exist and the contributions and achievements of women and minorities are overlooked and misrepresented, said William Leftwich, deputy assistant secretary of defense for equal opportunity.
All of DoD's ethnic observances highlight contributions and achievements of people of color, he said. They foster better understanding, he said, and build respect for the multicolored American tapestry of races and ethnicities ignored in the classrooms in the past. Historians, moviemakers, television producers and the print media also have either ignored or misrepresented minorities, Leftwich charged.
"If the contributions and achievements of minorities aren't brought to the attention of the nation during the observance months, most people wouldn't know of them," he noted. "It's rare that we take time to recognize the contributions our forefathers and others have made."
The first ethnic observance was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American author and scholar. He established Negro History Week in 1926. The week evolved into a month-long celebration in 1976 and is observed every February.
The first Asian Pacific American Heritage Week was celebrated in May 1979. The observance was expanded to a month in 1990 by presidential proclamation. In 1992, Congress passed a measure designating May each year as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Congress passed a joint resolution on Sept. 17, 1968, creating National Hispanic Heritage Week. The week was expanded to a month by joint resolution in 1988 now is observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 yearly.
It took more than 80 years for the nation to establish a National American Indian Heritage Month. The Boy Scouts set aside a day for the "First Americans" in the early 1900s. On Sept. 28, 1915, the Congress of the American Indian Association declared the second Saturday of each May as an American Indian Day.
Since then, several states declared American Indian days until 1976, when Congress passed a joint resolution authorizing the president to proclaim the week of Oct. 10- 16 as "Native American Awareness Week." Days and weeks of different months were set aside to honor the first Americans until they were given a month in 1990. President Bush proclaimed 1992 as the "Year of the American Indian," based on legislation by Congress. Since 1994, President Clinton has issued a proclamation each year designating November as National American Indian Heritage Month.
Leftwich said women's observance programs started in the 1960s when President Kennedy established the commission on the status of women. The commission resulted in the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Women's Program to address employment problems dealing with women.
In 1981, Congress passed a joint resolution proclaiming March as Women's History Month based on a 1978 model of Women's History Week established by California's Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women.
Celebrating women's accomplishments dates back to March 8, 1911, the first International Women's Day. The day was celebrated in Europe and Asia with parades and demonstrations to honor women. Women's History Month in the United States is seen as a time for reexamining and celebrating the wide range of women's contributions and achievements that are often overlooked in the telling of U.S. history.
"Ethnic celebrations are important because history books and the national consciousness have overlooked past and present contributions of racial and ethnic minorities and women," Leftwich noted. "It's important for us to remind ourselves that this country wasn't just built by or for white men. All sorts of people contributed in various ways."
He said the contribution of minorities and women are gradually being included in history books, but it's still necessary to go to special books to get additional and more detailed information.
"The history of African Americans and other minorities has been complicated by issues of discrimination and prejudice," Leftwich noted. "So we have to deal with that problem in addition to the facts of their contributions."