Fifty years ago, one of America’s greatest leaders, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., took to the national mall in Washington, D. C. to deliver what would go down in history as one of the most famous, profound, and prolific speeches ever delivered in America, “I Have a Dream.” King’s dream was “that one day . . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He dreamed this dream out of a tragic history for the Negro in America.
Instead of inclusion and citizenship, the Negro had been offered exclusion and slavery. Instead of equality and justice, the Colored man met inequality and Jim Crow. Instead of fairness and freedom, the Black man in America faced hatred and imprisonment. Today, the African-American stands liberated from a dreadful past, yet the race is still very much on a road to freedom and equality.
One hundred, fifty years ago and one hundred years prior to King’s famous speech, another of America’s most historical leaders, President Abraham Lincoln, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln stood firmly on the premise that the nation had been “conceived in liberty.” He was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are create equal.”
While the Emancipation Proclamation freed few slaves, it lit a fire under the nation and caused the Negro to fight harder and Whites to take notice. It was a wartime measure that made it very clear that the Civil War was more than a fight between north and south; it was a war between emancipators and enslavers. Dr. King referred to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as a “great beacon of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice . . . a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” Today, we celebrate “At the Crossroads of Equality and Freedom: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington,” the national theme for African American History month 2013 as instituted by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. This organization was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the second African-Americans to earn a doctoral degree at Harvard University after W. E. B. DuBois. He was also the father of Negro History Week, which became Black History Month now referred to as African American History Month in America.
Why celebrate Black History Month? We celebrate Black history to reflect on the actual history, significance, and contributions of African Americans in America. The time set aside to do so was not easy to come by. Black people had to fight for the very right to celebrate their struggle, their victories, their history.
African Americans have fought for every freedom they now enjoy; it is a story that must be told and retold until it becomes classic. The stories of slave ships and Middle Passage are important. Phenomenal figures like Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and Ida B. Wells yield not just African American stories; they yield American stories. African Americans like Phyllis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Madame C. J. Walker, Dr. Charles Drew, and the Tuskegee Airmen were pivotal influences in America. Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, freedom fighters, abolitionists, and so many unnamed others were instrumental on the journey toward freedom. Then there are the Emmitt Tills of history, whose stories tell the most tragic, dark side of it all. Though unpleasant, it is a past worth knowing; thus the history must be told.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson began the celebration as Negro History Week, and the world embraced it. His goal was that “we should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history.” It is important to recognize African American leadership and achievement just as all other Americans are celebrated for their philanthropy, patriotism, historical significance, and contributions. There is an importance in writing the very names of history makers down. We need to identify with who did what, why, and how difficult it was for them to succeed as African Americans.
When genius shows up and shines even in the darkest hours, it is extraordinary. African Americans have exhibited extraordinary talent. It was evident in history, and it is evident today. It shows up in education, government, science, the arts, and entertainment. Today many African Americans continue to excel as they face challenges and beat odds; they go on and achieve greatness and expand and bring value to American culture.
An African American, for the first time in history, ran for president of the United States, won, and was elected a second term. That is remarkable not just as African American history; the election of President Obama is a sign of the tremendous growth, diversity, change, and hope for an America standing “at the crossroads of equality and freedom.”
The idea of celebrating African American history was embraced in America, by people of all colors, because they felt the need to pay homage to a race of people whose story was not accurately and adequately recorded in American history. They embraced the idea realizing that the contributions of Black people in America were too often overlooked. They endorsed celebrating African American history because the very strength, resilience, long suffering, and fight of a people once enslaved but now free is a strong testament of American hope.
Many inventions that we enjoy today are the inventions of African Americans who have made significant contributions both nationally and internationally. African American children need to know about these contributions; knowing their history gives them hope.
African American children need to be able to look and live beyond stereotypes and know that if their ancestors could achieve and succeed, so can they. American history is a long story, but it is a story that gives us all hope. We are not living with that same racial divide of slavery and Jim Crow today, but we still face division in various forms in our culture. We are standing “at the crossroads” so to speak “of equality and freedom.” This month gives all people the opportunity to get a closer look at African American history and culture, to know its relevance, and to put it into perspective. Many don’t know the struggle and cannot identify with it. When you become familiar with the struggle, you can better identify with those who suffered it. It illustrates not only a willingness to tolerate difference, but openness toward diversity.
Those who seek unity, peace, and equality do so by gaining a better understanding, an appreciation for the diversity with which we have been endowed in America. The harsh reality of slavery in America tells the story of a brutal inhumanity of man. One cannot discuss American history without discussing African American history.
It is a story of triumph through adversity; it is a testament of hope in times of despair. African American history is a reality that a deprived people suffered. It’s a dream that a King had, a Proclamation that a U. S. President signed. Today we stand a little more united, a little more integrated, more educated, but most importantly, we stand proud to be free of a past that crippled the nation. Today Americans vote, eat, ride, go to school, and shop together, and we shouldn’t take this for granted. Good people lost their lives so that we could do it all. They were brave enough and bold enough to want our lives to be different, to be better; they bought this freedom we have to day, and they paid for it with their lives.
We should not neglect or let go of African American history, this hope, or the dreams of those who dared to envision and fight for better tomorrows. Lincoln dreamed “of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope on earth.” Dr. King’s dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” He dreamed “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
Today, at the crossroads where equality meets freedom, where Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation meets the March on Washington and Dr. King’s Dream, let us all, no matter what our race, color, or creed, take on the responsibility of our past. Let us be those citizens who vow to wake up daily in order to make life great, to make America great, not just for ourselves but for all of mankind. Remember the history of African Americans. Celebrate it. Let us keep this history alive in the spirit of hope for generations to come
(Published by the Dept. of Defense, February, 2013)