2006-02-17 / Community

Smith: Celebrate African-American History

By Senator Malcom A. Smith

Every February, Americans celebrate Black History month, an annual celebration that recognizes and pays tribute to the contribution of African-Americans.

Smith says that the celebration can be credited to Harvard scholar Dr. Carte G. Woodson, the son of former slaves, who dedicated his life to making sure that black history is documented and shared with all Americans. It was vital to Woodson that the world was aware of the important contribution the black community was making and the effect they had on our nation’s history.

In 1926, Woodson organized the first annual Negro History Week during the second week of February. He chose that date to honor the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, both staunch supporters of the black population. Eventually, Negro History Week grew into Black History Month.

As we honor the contribution of African-Americans it is appropriate to recognize three tragic losses to the black community this year: the passing of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and Judge Constance Baker Motley.

Credited with beginning the Civil Rights movement, which eventually ended legal segregation in America, the historic bus incident on December 11, 1955 that Parks became known for led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The association called for a boycott of the bus company that lasted for 382 days. Because of their efforts, the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on public transportation in November 1956. There is no question that the sacrifices Rosa Parks made for the civil rights movement, and her fierce dedication and bravery will long be remembered.

Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., worked tirelessly to keep her husband’s dream of peace alive after his assassination in Tennessee on April 4, 1968. She supported Dr. King throughout the civil rights movement, and fought for more than a decade to have her husband’s birthday observed as a national holiday. She was present when President Regan signed legislation establishing Martin Luther King Day in 1983.

King was also vocal in advocating issues such as women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and AIDS prevention. King received honorary degrees from many institutions, including Princeton University and Bates College, before her death on January 30, 2006 at the age of 78. She will be remembered not only as the wife of a civil rights leader, but as a civil rights pioneer in her own right, and a role model for women all over the world.

Judge Constance Baker Motley was the first African-American to serve the federal judiciary. Appointed by president Lyndon B. Johnson in January 1966, she was not only the first African-American but also the first woman to serve in this capacity. Judge Motley worked as the principal trial attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1945 to 1964, where she played a major role in many desegregation cases. It was 20 years of service to NAACP that Judge Motley chose to serve in the New York State Senate. Upon being elected she immediately began a campaign for the extension of civil rights legislation. After 40 years on the bench, Judge Motley died in September 2005. This innovative woman will be remembered for her pioneering spirit and life-long dedication to justice.

This February it is important to recognize the impact these dynamic women had not only on the black community but on our entire nation Their contributions to the civil rights movement were extraordinary and inspiring and they will not be forgotten. They now join a long list of departed African-Americans who fought injustice, faced incredible resistance to change, and made personal sacrifices to help make America a fairer, more just place to live. The progress we have made in civil rights and social justice can be traced back to these pioneers. It is our responsibility to ensure that the work of these and many other extraordinary African-American is never forgotten, and we should all endeavor to build on their achievements.

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