Black History Month Celebration


Thank you, Vanessa (Void-Taylor). Good morning. I am pleased so many of you could come. And my own thanks to Antoinette Banks and everyone on the committee for their hard work.

February seems to be one of those months measured less by length but more by landmarks: the Super Bowl, the budget release, and Presidents Day.

And in Washington, February 2008 will always be remembered because two football greats made it to Canton: Art Monk and Darrell Green.

These are two amazing role models...two outstanding and accomplished leaders.

As a Texan, I remember them. They ruined a number of Sundays for Cowboys fans.

And, it is appropriate to mention those names in February, the month we celebrate Black History. We celebrate this month because of the importance of the Black American experience to America. This month we will remember Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell, who were known for their straightforward advocacy for equal rights. We will think about Oliver Brown and a decision by the Supreme Court that ended the legal legitimacy of that segregation. And we will hear about how the lead counsel in that case, Thurgood Marshall, ended up on the Supreme Court and helped guide the implementation of Brown v Board of Education.

And we will do more than remember...we will live history. We will turn again to the writings of James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. We will listen once more to Cab Callaway and Miles Davis. And we will watch the god-given skill of Tiger Woods. Scientists will talk about George Washington Carver. Educators will mention Booker T. Washington. Doctors will discuss Charles Drew. Surgeons will marvel at Ben Carson. Diplomats will think about Colin Powell. Condoleezza Rice will continue to be the voice of America overseas. Bill Cosby will talk about personal responsibility.

During this month I think about my own heroes in the civil rights movement. They are authentic American heroes.

As many of you know, I grew up during segregation. I personally witnessed the courage and conviction of some of our greatest Americans. Bernard Lee came to my college and spoke of an important struggle, and convinced me to be a part of it. I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, and other committed men and women, black and white, on the road to Selma. John Lewis and I were both on Pettus Bridge during "Bloody Sunday."

For me, that history is memory, a biography of people I knew and loved.

It is also about roads not taken. At a time when we could have divided this country with violence and hatred, Dr. King wisely counseled non-violent action. At the very moment when we were beaten with clubs and attacked by dogs, he asked us to refrain from retaliation. And later, when were learned that some of our friends had been killed, Dr. King persuaded us to rely on God and human goodness, and not give in to the ravages of revenge.

As a result, the civil rights struggle became one of the most important moments in American history. We won through the moral force of our message. We won by the margin of righteous fortitude. For we made the words of the Constitution come alive...and apply to all Americans. Our work healed a fractured land. We narrowly avoided a second civil war that would have torn our nation in half.

We also learned that education was the way out of poverty and despair. So Black Americans went to colleges and universities, places like Harvard and Howard, Stanford and Spelman, Alabama and Alcorn A&M. Many students went north or west, to places that welcomed Black Americans. Some of us went to historically black colleges and universities because we knew that the classrooms were the road to freedom. On those campuses we found inspiration and shared commitment to freedom's future. We learned that the battleground for equality and opportunity would be in places like housing developments, in admissions offices, and at the work place.

And we were told that we must be well-prepared. We were needed!

Recently I gave the convocation at Tuskegee, and I recalled what my teachers repeatedly told us: knowledge must lead to action, as it did at Tuskegee and many other black colleges. We used our knowledge to reclaim our rightful inheritance and constitutional rights as Americans.

Yes, the people who did all of that...who overcame poisoned minds, illegitimate laws, vile vigilantes, and the fear of conflict...those people are my heroes. They are American heroes.

I know that our experience has influenced the struggle for equality and freedom abroad. The liberation of Eastern and Central Europe was successful because of inspiration from the civil rights movement. Think about it...half of Europe liberated without firing a shot, with no civil war, no conflict, no murder, and no retaliation. Again and again, the words of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders were heard in the capitals of former communist countries.

And when South Africa was almost torn apart by racial division, Nelson Mandela told an anxious nation about Dr. King and Justice Marshall and the heroes of the civil rights movement.

And now those names are whispered in places like Zimbabwe and Burma, in North Korea and in the Sudan ... anywhere where people strive to be free.

Through their writings and our history, the Black Founding Fathers reach out to become the founding fathers of new nations.

Ralph Ellison once worried that Black Americans were "invisible." Well, we are becoming more visible. In every walk of life, in every corner of America, Black Americans are community leaders, pillars of business, leading artists, and cultural icons.

This month we celebrate those accomplishments, because they make American stronger and because they are part of the American experience. We should be proud of our story...You and I know what we had to overcome to get here. And the spiritual said that "we shall overcome some day."

That day has come...we are overcoming the lingering inequalities that are the remnants of racism.

But our story is not finished...more will be written. The future is at hand.

And through our activities this month we will do more than revisit the past, we will provide a prologue for the future. We will write that future here at this department and any place that strives for equality and justice. So let us pause today, resolving to renew our lessons learned. For Black history is made up by people like you and me ...working together.

I am proud of your work. And I am proud of our history.

Thank you all for coming.


Content Archived: January 19, 2012