wonder, "Why do we keep celebrating Black
History Month?" It is because Black History
Month is a very special time of year. Granted,
we do not become less black on March 1st. And
we take pride in our heritage all year long.
But by setting aside this month, we set our
heritage apart. We take it from the pages of
history books and bring it to life. We take
the time to remember, to reunite, and to rededicate
ourselves to our history. And what a glorious
history it is!
When I consider Black history, I think of it
as a narrative of people crossing color lines....and
fulfilling dreams. African-Americans have long
struggled to understand their place in society.
With each passing decade, we have pushed the
color line forward, widened the circle, and
moved closer to America's promise of equality.
During Black History Month, we honor the memory
of African-Americans like Dr. Martin Luther
King, as we celebrate current history makers
like Dr. Condoleezza Rice. We remember the greatness
of Jackie Robinson breaking down color barriers
in sports, and then cheer as Tiger Woods sets
another record. These and so many other heroes
pushed color lines and then broke through them,
forever altering America's history.
In my view, the most dramatic example of African-Americans
pushing a color line is that of slavery. It
saddens me to see some of us trying to distance
ourselves from that piece of history. Others
try to minimize it. In fact, I recently looked
at my son's American History textbook and noticed
that the discussion of slavery in America only
filled half a page in a two-and-a-half-inch
Some flee from embracing our history, because
so many have tried to make us feel less worthy
because of it. But I am here today to remind
you that our painful past of pushing color lines
should make us hold our heads high in triumph,
not hang them in shame. If we truly recognize
how God has sustained us and shaped our purpose
as a people through a history of suffering and
injustice, then we will understand what a powerful
and blessed people we truly are.
Take a minute to think about the great power
that has emerged from great suffering.
Think about the men and women who endured the
capture and beatings in Africa, but did not
give up and die.
Think about the fortitude of the 12 million
who endured the middle passage, packed in leaky
ships, weak from starvation and disease, but
did not give up and die.
Think about the strength of the families that
were divided and sold on the blocks like cattle
when they arrived on American shores, but did
not give up and die.
Think about the courage of those who endured
Jim Crow's separatism, and the beatings and
hangings from hooded riders in the dead of night.
Think about those who were killed just for holding
a book or learning to read, but whose children
persisted, and became great inventors, writers,
doctors and scientists.
None of them gave up.
It is their blood that runs through our veins.
We are the children of survivors the
strongest of the strong. We are descended from
faithful and courageous men and women who beat
the odds, who led us into new frontiers, and
who crossed color lines literally breaking
chains of oppression to fulfill their dreams.
As the poet Maya Angelou remarked, "And,
still I rise." That is our history. A history
to take pride in and celebrate.
One of my most beloved heroes is a former slave
named Harriet Tubman. A picture of Sister Tubman
fearlessly leading slaves through the Underground
Railroad graces the walls in both my home and
my office, and reminds me daily of her strength
Her life has shaped my life. Her history has
helped mold me into the woman that I am. Harriet
Tubman was a woman of great faith who allowed
God to guide her through frequent prayer. She
was a dreamer, always envisioning and working
towards a better day, not just for herself but
for her people. She was a trailblazer, creating
new paths through rugged and dangerous terrain
to lead a disheartened people to freedom. She
never stopped fighting, never stopped pushing
that color line, never turned away from a challenge
whether it meant openly defying the South
by leading more than 300 slaves to freedom,
or by helping the Union cause as an army spy,
guide, and nurse.
Harriet Tubman felt the pain of the stones of
hatred and prejudice that were thrown at her.
But instead of cowering before those who cast
stones, she faced them with a head held high,
her eyes fixed upon a higher cause. She picked
up each stone thrown her way whether
it was a cruel word, a beating, or a lack of
food and shelter and used it to make
her stronger. Then, she laid the stones behind
her to create a sturdy path for me for
you to follow.
One story from her life stands out in my mind.
It was the summer of 1849, and Harriet had made
a decision: it was time to flee her slave owners.
It was time to claim her freedom. No one else
would join her not even her husband
so she went alone. Under cover of darkness,
with the north star as her guide, she made her
way on foot from the Eastern shore of Maryland
to the state of Pennsylvania. Freedom was hers
This is how she described it: "When I found
that I had crossed that line, I looked at my
hands to see if I was the same person now [that]
I was free. There was such a glory over everything...I
felt like I was in heaven."
I get goose bumps every time I recite her words,
because I can feel what she must have felt at
that moment. Harriet Tubman had crossed the
ultimate color line. The glory of achieving
her dream changed her. Her determination to
spread freedom changed the course of history.
Flash forward in time last year, we celebrated
the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme
Court decision, Brown versus the Board of Education,
a decision which ended racial segregation in
America's public schools. A young lawyer named
Thurgood Marshall argued the case. For Thurgood
Marshall, the grandson of a slave, it was beyond
time to cross that color line.
you see, had to fight to get the education he
deserved. He attended segregated schools in
Baltimore. He went to college in Pennsylvania
because Maryland's universities were segregated.
After graduating with honors, he applied to
attend the University of Maryland College Park
School of Law and was rejected solely
because of his race.
Marshall never forgot that rejection, that "stone."
In fact, it inspired him to push the color line.
He earned his J.D. at Howard University's law
school, and then crusaded against segregated
universities in the 1940s before arguing the
Brown case in 1954. In rejecting Marshall, the
University of Maryland rejected the very man
who would bring their segregated system down.
A man who would achieve something none of its
other graduates achieved the honor of
becoming a Supreme Court Justice.
This is our heritage. This is our history. Remember
it. Celebrate it. And understand that our history
is our future.
John Henrik Clarke, an African-American historian,
put it best when he said, "History tells
a people where they have been and what they
have been...but most important, history tells
a people where they still must go... and what
they still must be."
Throughout your lives, you will face many challenges
and difficulties. You will run into roadblocks
and obstacles. Some may come simply because
of the color of your skin. Others will come
from challenges you cannot foresee or imagine.
It may take the full measure of your faith to
help you overcome them. And it will take the
knowledge of your history to guide you through
When challenges seem insurmountable, turn around
and survey the road that others have paved for
you the Harriet Tubmans, the Thurgood
Marshalls, the heroes and trailblazers of your
own family. Let their stories inspire you. Let
their resilience encourage you. They never gave
up and blamed others for their difficulties,
but instead dreamed of a better day and willingly
took on the challenge of crossing color lines
to fulfill those dreams.
Let me take you back in time once more, to a
rural town in Louisiana in the late 1960s. It
was more than 10 years after the Supreme Court
required in the Brown decision that the nation
desegregate its schools with "all deliberate
speed." In this town, a young black girl
became one of the first children in her district
to be bused into a previously segregated all
white elementary school.
Each day, as her bus approached the school grounds,
it was met by a mob of angry white parents who
walked a color line, held up cruelly-worded
picket signs and shouted obscenities at the
bus of black children. Each day, as the bus
rolled through the gates of the school, this
young girl would yell out the window in her
loudest, most defiant voice: "Three, six,
nine...three, six, nine, we have crossed your
picket line!" When the angry mob heard
those words they would pick up stones and throw
them at the little girl on the school bus.
My memory of those stones is vivid, because
I was that little girl. And though I regret
all the dents in the bus, I will never regret
my defiance. I recall that I never felt afraid
of those angry parents who walked the picket
line in my hometown, and I was never belittled
by their hateful words.
I had courage because my mother had shared with
me the history of our people. I had courage
because my mother had taught me to take pride
in and learn from our history. I had courage
because my mother had given to me, as a child,
the gift of faith in God.
And so, even then, I knew that no color lines,
no picket signs, no stones could prevail against
me. I was part of a larger history. The knowledge
of that history has sustained me and given me
the strength to cross many color lines in my
Recently, my hometown newspaper ran a feature
about me with the subheading, "Ex-Resident
Climbs FBI Hierarchy." What a difference
from years earlier when some in that same town
threw stones at me and tried to keep me out
of the public school. That's a part of my history
that my family, and especially my son, will
In the case of Justice Thurgood Marshall, today,
the University of Maryland College Park School
of Law has been folded into the University of
Maryland which is home to the Thurgood
Marshall Law Library. That's a part of Marshall's
history that we will never forget.
And as for Harriet Tubman, today the Freedom
Center, a museum, learning center and research
lab in Cincinnati, pays tribute to her courage
in building the Underground Railroad. That's
a part of Harriet's history that our children
will never forget.
In the spiritual "Find Us Faithful"
by Steven Green, he offers these words: "After
all our hopes and dreams have come and gone,
and our children sift through all we've left
behind; May the clues that they discover, and
the memories they uncover, become the light
that leads them to the road we each must find."
And so I encourage you: Take strength from our
history. Our freedom and equality is the product
of the strength, courage and faith of those
who have gone before us. Remember their stories,
and live out new ones in your life which can
be passed on to future generations.
Keep crossing the color lines. Keep fulfilling
your dreams. And let the history of a great
people empower you to be the great history makers
# # #