Black History Month, celebrated each February, is a time that our country comes together to recognize the exceptional accomplishments and contributions of all African Americans. This year marks the convergence of two very significant anniversaries in the fight for freedom, each representing a pivotal moment along the path to equal opportunity and justice for all people.
This year we commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. These two events set into motion ground-swell movements that were larger than either of the iconic men who are identified with these transformational events in our nation’s unfolding history.
Our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we also celebrate this month, has been hailed as one of our greatest presidents, and it was the decree set forth in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that represents a turning point in the struggle for freedom. It was a watershed moment during a tumultuous and dark time in which our nation was ripped apart by the Civil War. While this proclamation did not free all slaves, it gave hope to millions entrapped in slavery, setting the country on a course so that all men could be guaranteed those unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
100 years later in August of 1963, it was a young Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood in the shadow of the Washington landmark that memorializes President Lincoln and delivered one of the most stirring and inspirational speeches ever in the fight for freedom and self-determination. The March on Washington represented one of the greatest peaceful demonstrations ever promoting civil justice and economic opportunity. Dr. King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech ushered in a new dawn of hope, and his words rang out across the country, encouraging even those in the deepest despair to persevere in the fight for equal justice, freedom, and the end of racial discrimination.
Continuing in a tradition that I started 17 years ago, I recently hosted my annual Black History Month Commemoration honoring the contributions of all African Americans. Hundreds of folks from Eastern North Carolina joined me in Elizabethtown, along with Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge, Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who was there as my special guest. The program was a vibrant and uplifting occasion to honor those African American heroes in our communities. Theirs are stories of everyday heroes who teach in our schools, minister in our churches, defend our country in uniform, work in our factories, fight in our military, lead in our communities, and care for our children. It is in their ordinary acts that extraordinary acts are revealed.
Later this month we will honor one of those everyday heroes whose ordinary act symbolized remarkable courage and inspired generations to act in the name of freedom. A statue will soon be dedicated and placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection of the U.S. Capitol honoring the seamstress who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. This ordinary act, defying the Jim Crow laws of the day, catapulted Rosa Parks into the history books as a symbol of courage in the fight to end racial discrimination. We must all strive to be that symbol of courage as she was, always taking a stand for is right.
Let us, a grateful nation, pause this Black History Month to reflect on the selfless sacrifices of those African American heroes of the past generations who have forever altered the landscape of this nation. May we also pay tribute to those everyday unsung heroes in our midst whose often unrecognized and sometimes quiet work continues to strengthen this nation for future generations.