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Matthews: 'Black History Is America's History'

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UWF Historic Trust

As the celebration of Black History Month nears conclusion, Rev. H.K. Matthews — a Pensacola-area Civil Rights icon — looks back and then forward.

Black History Month turns 45 this year. President Gerald Ford recognized the observance in 1976, during the nation’s Bicentennial. But not everybody is on board – including Rev. Matthews.

“In actuality, Black History Month is something I don’t really cater to; I don’t really care much about [it],” said Rev. H.K. Matthews, a former Pensacola resident who now lives in Atmore, Alabama and has been with the movement for more than six decades.

“They gave us the shortest month in the year,” Matthews said. “My contention is that Black history is America’s history, and America’s history is our history. And that it should all be woven into the curriculum. And there really would be no need to set aside one month to talk about the accomplishments of Black people.”

Challenges continue to emerge for the Civil Rights Movement; in 2021, it includes the political rhetoric that’s been spewed — Matthews’ word — from those who hold power and authority in this nation.

“We have but to look back at some of the events that have taken place, even within the past two to three months, and we can go back even farther than that with Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd. That has really, really set us reeling.”

It seems, contends Matthews, that the progress that was made from the 1950s to the 1980s has been targeted by some trying to “wipe it away.” While he has feared traveling earlier in life, Matthews says people of color today should be very particular.

“Who they meet on the highway, who they meet on the street walking; who they encounter in stores — it’s just bad,” Matthews said. “And until God moves and gets some of this mess out of the way, we are in for some rough sledding.”

Another challenge is guarding African-Americans against the coronavirus pandemic. Access to the vaccines for people of color appears to be the most pressing issue at this point.

“There are more people of color who are absolutely crying and begging for the vaccine,” said Matthews. “I’m just so grateful and thankful that has not been the case here in the area where I live.” 

To this day, many Blacks are wary of the government, given the Tuskegee Experiment, where, from 1932 to 1972, African-American men were injected with syphilis and not treated, so the effects of the disease could be studied. Matthews says that’s not germane to battling COVID-19.

“I don’t think we can compare that, with what’s happening today, even though sometimes people bring that up,” said Matthews. “But I think the people who administer these vaccines are concerned about doing the right thing and helping people.”

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Credit Dave Dunwoody/WUWF Public Media
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Rev. H.K. Matthews

H.K. Matthews recently celebrated his 93rd birthday, but continues to be driven in part by what remains to the done for civil rights. He wants to be around to see both past and current battles come to fruition.

“I want to see the day when we’re not afraid to go out of our front door; when I don’t have to be afraid to go into public places where I’ve got to look over my shoulder,” Matthews said. “And I have a feeling that the God I serve is going to bring that about, and that He’s going to allow me to see that.”

One thing that raises Matthews’ spirits is the election of Joe Biden as president after four years of Donald Trump. He saying the new chief executive is off to a “great start.”

“This is to some of my African-American friends and those who I don’t know, that they cannot expect Mr. Biden to come in and develop a whole Black cabinet,” Matthews said. “He made it clear when he was running that he planned to be the president of all people.”

And the United States is not alone in celebrating Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Ireland, also devote a month to celebrating Black accomplishments.