First lady Michelle Obama, right, speaks during the “Celebrating Women of the Movement,” event honoring Black History Month. On stage with the first lady from left are, Janaye Ingram, Carlotta Walls, Sherrilyn Ifill, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Chanelle Hardy, and Vanessa DeLuca. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
As part of a Black History Month event at the White House, five women who have contributed to the civil rights movement, discussed the liberalization effect of education in communities of color. The “Celebrating Women of the Movement” event focused on ways to ensure that little girls with big dreams had the opportunity to make those dreams a reality.
“Like many of you, I believe that education is the single most important civil rights issue that we face today,” first lady Michelle Obama told various women and girls in the East Room on Feb. 20.
Obama introduced the panel, including Carlotta Walls LaNier, member of the Little Rock Nine; Charlayne Hunter-Gault, activist and journalist; Sherrillyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Chanelle Hardy, National Urban League senior vice president for Policy and executive director of the National Urban League Washington Bureau; and Janaye Ingram, national executive director of the National Action Network.
According to a blog on whitehouse.gov, these women “have played critical roles in America’s progress on civil rights. Vanessa De Luca, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine moderated the event and Allyson Carpenter, Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner, introduced the first lady.
“These women represent many different facets of the movement their humble core and belief in the power of education,” Obama said. “Every woman on this stage graduated from college. And some of them did it at tremendous risk to themselves and to their families.”
Obama emphasized that although the circumstances have gotten better and there are more African Americans graduating from college, there is still a huge deficit when compared to other races in the U.S. “Today, many of the opportunities that these women have fought for are going unrealized,” Obama said. “While we should be proud that the high school graduation rate for Black students is improving, it is still lower than just about any other group in this country.”
First lady Michelle Obama speaks at the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, during the “Celebrating Women of the Movement,” event honoring Black History Month. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Obama said her hope is for all of the young people to fulfill their potential. “Everyone in this room believes in our young people and I love you all,” she said.
Panelist, varying in experience, shared their stories with the audience composed of girls from the first lady’s mentor program and Howard University along with dignitaries, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.); E. Faye Williams, national president and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women; and Sylvia Cyrus, executive director for the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (ASALH).
The panelists were asked how education was instilled in them at an early age. All answered that is was valued, encouraged, and required. “Education is the key to success,” said LaNier.
Hardy said, “We are here to help find and keep your righteous mind,” referring to a personal anecdote of being underestimated as a child in school because she was Black. “What we can control, in a world that seems pretty crazy some times, is what we do and education is important to that,” she said.
According to the Legal Defense Fund “Unlocking Opportunity for African-American Girls” report, released in 2014, 75 percent of African-American girls were the most likely
group of girls to consider themselves to be leaders, and the most likely to have leadership experience (78 percent).
Ifill questioned what happened in the period from when a little Black girl believed she would be or was a leader to what she ended up becoming. “We have to create an environment, a society to receive people who want to achieve, who are ambitious, who have a sense of themselves as leaders and we have to give them the tools that they need to be able to live out their dreams,” Ifill said.
The discussion also touched on contemporary issues, such as police brutality, Ferguson, Mo. and the need to talk about Black history continuously instead of only in February.
In her closing remarks, Norton said, “I think what we will do is to take from the inspiration to move forward collectively, to make ourselves a part of the continuing movement for change, and to say to them, ‘Just as you have given us so much, this afternoon, we promise you, in return, we will give you our continuing commitment to keep pressing for change until every American has equal rights under the law and in fact.”