By Congressman Kweisi Mfume
Black history in the United States is a story of persecution, excellence, achievement, and the resolve to fight for a nation where all citizens are treated equally notwithstanding the color of their skin. As we enter the month of February, we begin “Black History Month,” a justifiable celebration of past and present African Americans who should be recognized for their achievements during this multi-century long trek towards equality.
Beginning in 1926, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), chose the second week of February to commemorate the achievements of Black activism. This week followed the week in which the NAACP was founded in 1909 and aligned with the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. It was also the starting point for what would ultimately become the month-long celebration it is known as today.
Having been sponsored by the ASALH in 1926, almost forty years before passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the response to this Black recognition effort was not met with full appreciation and open arms. A limited number of school systems adopted this week-long celebration of Black achievement in the years following its creation.
However, as decades went by, the persistence of the movement’s leaders resulted in the campaign being taken to a new level. Mayors in cities throughout the country began to accept and utilize proclamations to recognize this movement. From cities, the campaign found a new home on college campuses, and accelerated following the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
At Kent State University in 1970, the first celebration of Black History Month took place following activism the year before by Black educators and the “Black United Students” to officially recognize this celebration amongst the student body. In 1976, Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s vision took its most monumental step yet – making its way to the White House.
President Gerald Ford proclaimed Black History Month in 1976, promoting executive action by urging Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
In 1986, the United States Congress cemented the steps of so many activists who fought for the recognition, and “National Black History Month” took its official place in February of each year. And while it is essential to remember the struggle for freedom that will always be a part of African American history, we must also understand why it should be remembered.
Through the immorality of slavery and segregation that African Americans have been subjected to, there emerged stories of incredible heroism that define what Black history is and should be recognized as. In its current form the goal of that history is to encapsulate all experiences of African Americans persevering in the face of immense adversity. Today we celebrate black people across all facets of society, from the arts to activism, medicine, politics, science, and so many more areas. To do so, each year the celebration of Black history is matched with a theme to shed light on the vast array of stories which contribute to this effort.
This year’s theme is “Black Health and Wellness;” an understandable decision given we are in the midst of a global pandemic. While the spotlight will be rightfully shown on African Americans’ contributions to medicine, we must not overlook the inequities in healthcare access and coverage in our communities that have been exacerbated during the pandemic. COVID-19 has killed African Americans at a rate that is more than double that of others. Meanwhile cancer, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, HIV and AIDS continue to ravish our communities, both impacting the quality of life and driving down life expectancies. Hence the necessity for Black History Month to remain an illuminating force in our lives is as much a part of our history as is the ongoing struggle for equality.
This month, we recognize the activism and the faith in God that has lead us to where we are today. We understand the need to carry on the legacies and to continue the fight. In the spirit of inspiration, I remind us to celebrate Black History every Month and to proclaim the accomplishments and contributions of Black people into the new year and beyond.
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