When Philotimo Stood With African-Americans
By Andreas N. Akaras
BALTIMORE, MD – February is Black History Month, a month- long celebration of the African diaspora's contributions to America. During this month long observance, we Greek- Americans are reminded of the many outstanding Hellenes who stood with the African-American community in its struggle for freedom and dignity.
From grade school, we come to know that America is a melting pot, a country where "out of many" we stand as one nation, under God, indivisible. Scratch deep enough, and every American can tell that story of a bold ancestor who braved the journey to the new world. A journey motivated by a promise to live in a country where dreams come true, where your worth is measured by your merit, and where all individuals are equal under the eyes of the law. Yet, unique is the experience of the promise of America to the African-American com- munity. Whereas the rest of us arrived on the shores of America as willing immigrants, the African diaspora came to the new world as slaves.
The vast majority of African- Americans are descendants of Africans who were forcibly uprooted from their native lands, stripped of their personhood, and denied their very humanity.
The great paradox in the treatment of the African diaspora is that it occurred in a country born of those seeking refuge from religious persecution, and whose founding fathers organized a constitutional democracy that derived its legitimacy from the self-evident truth of inalienable rights.
The U.S. Constitution is itself a sophisticated document representing the various forms of governance promulgated by the Ancient Greeks: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. In law school, my Constitutional law professor explained how the checks and balances of the Constitution were, in fact, checks and balances of the various forms of governance. He explained that Congress represents democracy, the president represents monarchy, and the Supreme Court represents oligarchy.
Unfortunately, until the success of the Civil Rights movement, the various branches of government only found Constitutional cause to deny the humanity and dignity of African- Americans.
Not until the destruction wrought by Civil War, did any president, Congress or Supreme Court act to abolish slavery. The struggle for the abolition of slavery, and later segregation, was therefore not overcome because of equality under law.
Rather, slavery and segregation were defeated when brave individuals of conscience stood up to a society that had accepted an immoral status quo, and whose righteous convictions were far more powerful than the institutions that denied African- Americans their rightful place in society. These forthright people came from all walks of life, and from numerous communities. The Jewish community in particular was notable for its strong support of the civil rights movement. As Hellenes, we too have good reason to commemorate Black History Month.
When Greeks began their war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, James Williams, a former slave and sailor from my hometown of Baltimore, joined Greek Naval forces and fought gallantly at the battle of the Gulf of Lepanto. Williams died in Greece. When Martin Luther King, Jr., marched on Selma, striding along with him in his black Kalimafki (itself a sign of subjugation originally imposed by Ottoman rulers) was Archbishop Iakovos, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church of America. That moment has been memorialized on the cover of Life Magazine. When the apartheid regime in South Africa put Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, and Walter Sisulu on trial in 1963, for their defense Mandela called on his trusted law school classmate and friend, Greek born attorney George Bizos.
Less known are the contributions of everyday Greek-Americans to the civil rights struggle. People like Anthony J. Konstant, a Baltimore civil rights advocate and restaurateur who led the way in desegregating restau- rants in Maryland. Pota Vallas, of Raleigh, NC, who now at the age of 104, still praises the African-Americans who worked with her in her design and decoration firm, in her own words: "they were more family than employees, I couldn't have made it without them."
Pota entrusted her family and livelihood to African-Americans in the face of intense racism in the South.
Today, a photograph of her and President Obama hangs in her home.
We have come a long way from the days of slavery and segregation. When a young man named Barack Obama sought to enter the political arena in Chicago, his Greek-American friend Alexi Giannoulias convinced his family and friends to offer invaluable support to the fledgling politician. Alexi and Barack were friends before either made his way up the political ladder. Dr. King and Arch- bishop Iakovos are no doubt smiling that Greek-Americans and African-Americans have walked hand-in-hand all the way to the White House.
This March, inspired by Congressman John Sarbanes' Hellenism in the Public Service initiative, the Johns Hopkins Hellenic Students Association is organizing a commemoration of the bond between Hellenism and the African-American com- munity at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore. Celebrations such as these are good and proper, as they honor the memory of those in our community who gave to the broader society to make the world a better place. It is also a wonderful opportunity for our community to extend an old hand in friendship to the African-American community.
Black History Month is an occasion to examine Hellenism in both its conceptual and practical forms. What role did the high ideals and values of Hellenism play in the legal and social considerations that moved our government in the direction of freedom and liberty? What motivated Hellenes from Baltimore to Johannesburg to stand on the side of liberty, justice, and freedom for all? No matter what we deduce from studied introspection, each of these out- standing Hellenes deserves our recognition, and we must honor their courage and conviction by embracing our Philotimo.
Andreas Akaras is a Washington, DC-based political advisor, commentator and attorney.