This month we celebrate the history and achievements of Black Americans. We celebrate the contributions, large and small, made by the descendants of Africans. Contributions that have made our country great.
For African Americans, the primary goal of Black History Month is to remind us -- each of us -- of the rich heritage we have inherited. And to teach us that if we carry within ourselves the memory of the journey of our people it will remind us that we are evidence of the success of that journey.
For all Americans, the goal of Black History Month is to expose the larger community to the rich heritage, culture and history of African Americans. And in so doing, eliminate some of the barriers that divide us as a nation.
Let me apologize at the outset for not individually recognizing during the next few minutes the millions of Africans who struggled, sacrificed, and suffered in transforming this country from thirteen colonies into the United States of America. The millions of Negroes, free and enslaved, who built this country into one of the most prosperous nations in the history of the world. The millions of Blacks who contributed immensely to the cultural, social, spiritual, political and economic development of this land of opportunity. The millions of African Americans without whom this country would never have become the land of the free and the home of the brave:
Booker T. Washington, who represented the last generation of Black leaders born into slavery, who inspired African Americans to develop economic skills. Duke Ellington, who shared his music with the world as one of the greatest jazz composers and performers ever;
Irene Morgan, who in 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks' arrest, refused to give up her seat on a public bus and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won;
Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave turned sailor, who will forever be linked to the cause of freedom for all Americans as the first person killed in the Boston Massacre;
And Douglas Wilder, who was the first African American elected Governor, when he was elected Governor of Virginia, the former capital state of the Confederacy.
Millions of African Americans throughout history have made this nation the country that we as Americans love and cherish dearly. There have been few individuals, however, that have struggled, sacrificed and suffered, not only for African Americans, but also for all of America, more than the great warriors of the Civil Rights movement.
From the women and children of the Montgomery bus boycott to the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s who dealt a death blow to Jim Crow bus facilities. And from individuals such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Meredith, and Ruby Bridges, to Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Marian Wright Edelman and countless others.
Their tremendous sacrifices, struggles and suffering have made the largest difference in the fight for equality and justice and arguably the largest difference in the history of African Americans in our country.
From the courageous and patriotic efforts of so many African Americans throughout our history, from the heroes whose names are so familiar—Jessie Owens, Rosa Parks, the Buffalo Soldiers, .as well as from ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary feats. We are inspired as a people to continue the march for justice and equality in our time and for our future.
America is great because we are here and we are here because of the journey of our people. Whether our families came to this country by force or by choice, we as descendants of Africans have since found that our country is a true land of opportunity. We have pursued that opportunity for ourselves and we have expanded those opportunities for all to seek. We have progressed from slaves and then slave labor to doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, scientists, professors and politicians. And our progress is evidence of that journey -- a journey that has taken decades to travel along miles upon miles of history's highways.
Dr. Marian Wright Edelman once stated, “We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”
So I think of Harriet Tubman. Her work with the Underground Railroad helped more than 300 slaves escape and make their way toward freedom. Think about it: three hundred made free out of four million slaves.
Just a small step, perhaps but the greater difference was how her actions inspired so many others to dream of freedom and to continue to struggle, to sacrifice and to suffer until freedom and equality are achieved. Harriet Tubman -- someone whose small steps made it possible for the giant strides taken by others.
The strides taken by Dr. Mae Jemison, who journeyed into orbit as the first African American woman to travel into space.
The strides taken by General Colin Powell, whose American Journey took him from one of the toughest neighborhoods in the South Bronx to the highest diplomatic and military positions in the United States.
The strides taken by Dr. Ben Carson, whose illiterate mother encouraged him to read, instead of watch TV and who today is the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins -- Saving lives as did Harriett Tubman decades earlier.
The long and arduous journey taken by descendants of Africans in this country has not been a lone journey through America.
While the struggles and sacrifices often stemmed from racial prejudices and ethnic intolerances, African Americans have long recognized that ours is a suffering caused by an innate desire and commitment to make our country better. A commitment shared by all Americans.
As early as 1847, a great Marylander spoke of a One Maryland -- the same One Maryland that Governor O'Malley speaks of today. A Maryland in which we value the dignity of every individual. A Maryland in which we recognize that each of us has a responsibility in our own way to advance the common good. And a Maryland in which we recognize that at the beginning and end of every day there is more that unites us than divides us. That our diversity is our greatest strength. It was Frederick Douglass, speaking to Whites and Blacks alike, who stated 160 years ago, “Remember that we are one, that our cause is one, and that we must help each other, if we would succeed.”
We must help each other. Reginald F. Lewis believed so. The wealthiest Black man in America. Born in East Baltimore at a time when he could not try on clothes or shop at stores in downtown Baltimore and there were places he couldn't eat and movie theaters he couldn't visit.
Yet, from his mother and grandfather he acquired a strong work ethic and a drive to succeed. He graduated from Harvard Law School and established the first African American law firm on Wall Street. He fought the odds of the cards he was dealt and won. But he didn't win for himself. Reginald Lewis didn't forget others; giving back was part of his life. He generously funded grants to various non-profit programs and organizations while he was alive, including an endowment to Howard University that is used for scholarships, fellowships, and faculty sabbaticals. He donated $3 million to Harvard Law School—the largest grant in the history of the school at the time, and, among other programs, the grant supports a fellowship to teach minority lawyers how to be law professors .
We must help each other. Clarence Blount believed so. Senator Blount was a great Marylander who served our State well by fighting to improve education in our poorest communities. Despite being so poor that he and his siblings didn't have shoes on their feet, and not entering school until the age of 10, Senator Blount made a large impact through his career service and commitment to make life better for all children. He was an Army veteran of WWII, an educator, a principal, a State Senator, and he was the Maryland Senate's first African American Majority Leader.
Through his great service to our State, he helped countless Maryland children, including Congressman Elijah Cummings, to unlock their potential and realize that education is power and it creates opportunity.
“You've got to embrace your past in order to have a foundation for the future.” That's what the Reverend Dr. Harold Carter preaches at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
By looking at the past, it is clear that the future for African Americans is full of both opportunities and challenges. There are great Black athletes and celebrities who earn millions of dollars like Gilbert Arenas and Jada Pinkett Smith, and yet there are inner city residents who still live in poverty.
There are great literary giants like Maya Angelou, and yet there are still too many African American children who are illiterate and have given up hope of ever succeeding.
There have been great achievements in medicine throughout the last century, some by great African Americans such as Dr. Carson and Dr. Charles Drew who invented the concept of a blood bank, and yet there are tremendous health disparities with the Black-White health care gap -- costing the lives of more than 83,000 African Americans each year.
The gaps also exists within our system of justice. There have been two African Americans on the U.S. Supreme Court, the Honorable Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. And notable African American jurists fill the benches in courts around the country, including the likes of the Honorable Theordore McKee and Alex Williams. And the first African American recently assumed the presidency of an Ivy League school, Dr. Ruth Simmons at Brown University. And yet more African Americans are in prison, on probation or parole than in institutions of higher education.
Our future is full of opportunities and challenges. As such, we should not only applaud and spread the word of the accomplishments of African Americans in our nation's history, but we must also build on those successes in order to continue the long journey that our people started -- started when the "20 and odd," the first African slaves, set foot at Jamestown in 1607.
We must plug the gaps in health care and in the workforce. And we must stop the complaining and griping when promising young leaders who have seemingly not had to overcome as great adversity as others in our history.
We must join together. We must lay the foundation for generations to come to help others within our community to unlock their potential. Help others realize their talents, . . . and help the community as a whole to progress beyond even our imagination.
In a few short years, there will be but a few warriors left from the Civil Rights Movement, nevertheless, we must remember that we are still on a battlefield. Every single one of us, as beneficiaries of what those warriors accomplished, has a responsibility to fulfill and promote the American Dream. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
And therefore, we must come together and continue to make demands because we, as a people, have achieved great things, but we still have a long way to go.
We must encourage our new generation of Black leaders, like Senator Barack Obama, Congressman Artur Davis, and Mayor Adrian Fenty -- whether they have “earned a badge of honor” or not, or soon we will not have any warriors left to fight on our behalf.
Those from our history have, out of necessity, passed the torch on to those of us, who because of different circumstances, did not fight on the Civil Rights battlefield of yesterday. Yet, we continue to struggle, sacrifice and suffer through gaps, inconsistencies and disparities and we continue to serve our country and we continue to take small steps toward making great differences for African Americans.
We have been given a gift of advancement, but because of that gift, we must do even more for those that will come after us because, as Dr. King reminded us, “progress is not inevitable.”
We must do more than take one month to celebrate Black History. Only through hard work and persistent effort every day, every month and every year will we honor what our people have done and will we be able to secure a future of progress and success for Black people in America.
Walk good my friends and may good walk with you.