I'd like to begin by saying how pleased I am to have been invited to speak here today. It's truly an honor to join all of you in recognizing Black History Month.
A wise person once said that a good speech should be like a comet: Dazzling, eye-opening and over before you know it. I don't know how well I can do on the first two, so I'll try to achieve the third! Black History Month started in 1926 as a way to recognize the achievements of people of African descent. When it first began, the celebration lasted just a week. Maybe they realized there were just too many good things to talk about in that short amount of time. Historian Carter G. Woodsen selected the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
It's a wonderful time to step back and recognize the many great gifts African Americans have brought to our nation. Just reflect on some names with me for a moment - Frederick Douglass; Sojourner Truth; Harriet Tubman; Martin Luther King Jr; Malcom X; Nikki Giovanni; W.E.B. Dubois; Rosa Parks. How different would our country be without these leaders and the myriad of others who fought for Civil Rights? These people have helped us learn what strength is, what perseverance is. They broke down barriers, they stood against injustice, they helped us pull together as a nation and overcome our darkest days. These people and so many others helped us build toward a greater nation where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
And its not just Civil Rights where African Americans have made their mark. Think about music - what would music be without Louis Armstrong; Aretha Franklin; Michael Jackson; Whitney Houston; Tupac Shakur; Beyonce. Without African American contributions to music we'd be without jazz, blues, rap, hip hop, R and B, and arguably, even rock and roll.
Or how about these. Literature - Maya Angelou and Ralph Ellison. Science - George Washington Carver and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Entrepreneurship, Madame C.J. Walker and Dr Dre. Sports - Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. Politics - Condoleeza Rice and Barack Obama. The list could go on and on. African Americans have made enormous impacts in every single area of American life.
What makes this so amazing is that it has simply not been that long since black Americans were legally excluded from so many aspects of American life. For the young people here, I know it seems like ancient history, but for those of us with a few years on us, many of us have seen how much life has changed for African Americans even in the past few decades.
(SPEAKER CAN ADD PERSONAL ANECDOTE HERE ABOUT PROGRESS SEEN IN LIFETIME IF DESIRED)
It hasn't been an easy struggle. We don't have to go all the way back in history to slavery to see the effects of institutional racism in our country. You can go back to events that happened in the lifetimes of many people here. The court case Brown versus Board of Education should have ended school segregation in 1954 and started us down the road to integration. Yet just a few years later, we see the Civil Rights Act of 1957. And then the Civil Rights Act of 1960, then the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and on and on.
The laws kept coming to try to combat racism, but people kept on finding new ways to try to keep the status qou going. Fortunately, other people kept on fighting to beat back the injustice, to beat back the segregation and discrimination perpetrated on the black community. That struggle continues today.
That's part of why we gather here today to celebrate black history. We honor those who came before. We celebrate how far we've come as a society, but we also honor those who continue the struggle today - for the struggle is far from over.
We look at the past and applaud those who came before for doing great things. It's easy to look back to the past and see who was on the right side of history, separated as we are by years and years. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, as the saying goes. It is easy to stand here today and say, school segregation was wrong. Slavery was wrong. Denying people the right to vote was wrong.
We mustn't forget that part of the struggle in that time was that good people stood by and watched as the bad happened. Good people remained neutral and looked the other way so they wouldn't have to do the hard thing and stand up for what was right.
In the words of Desmond Tutu, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
I want to challenge you today to take this black history month and think of our place in history today. Which side of history will you stand on? We all know we still have a lot of problems, and that many of those problems can be traced to racism. You only have to read the news to see how injustice still affects the black community today. Don't be neutral. Make a commitment that you won't look the other way when the elephant stands on the mouse's tail. Make a promise to yourself to speak up when you see injustice.
I also want to ask you to listen. Engage people with views different than your own and share your perspective, but also listen. Listen with kindness in your heart, not anger. If we listen to each other, if we treat each other with respect, we can find ways to overcome our modern day problems together.
Thank you again for the honor speaking with you today. It has truly been a pleasure.
I'd like to leave you with a quote from Dr Martin Luther King Jr. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." Let us all work to be the light that drives out darkness. If we work together, we can continue to make great strides to a better future.
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