February marks the celebration of Black History. This practice was established in 1926 as a week-long observance by African-American historian, scholar and educator Carter G. Woodson in honor of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. The second week in February was chosen because it commemorates the birthdays of both Douglas, an abolitionist who fought to end slavery in America; and Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery as 16th president of the United States. In 1976, then U.S. President Gerald Ford officially designated Black History Week as a month-long celebration.
When it was first established, Black History Month celebrated and acknowledged the trials and triumphs made by African Americans during their struggle for independence and recognition. It was a time to remember and honor those who fought and died to secure human rights for African Americans.
Today, 87 years later, America continues to use this set aside time to pay homage to those African Americans whose pioneering and resilient spirits helped shape our country.
In addition, this is also a time for America to gauge the progress that we as a nation are making in terms of equality and justice for all citizens, regardless of race. It is my belief that while the progress has been slow, it has indeed been steady. So much so that we as a nation can celebrate living African Americans who are continuing to make history. Just last month, our first African-American President of the United States was sworn into office for an historic second term. That swearing-in took place nearly 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and on the national day of observance of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Americans, along with citizens from across the world, applauded this historic occasion because it was a testament to how far we have come in addressing prejudices and embracing the unique characteristics of all people who live in this great nation.
Here in Oklahoma, the progress toward equality and justice is also steady. Our state represents a microcosm of the nation that is heading toward creating a more unified community in which, to paraphrase the words of the late Rev. King, “people will no longer judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This progress is evidenced by recent events in our state Legislature.
Last month, T. W. Shannon was elected as the first African-American Speaker of the House, Tom Colbert was sworn in as the first African-American Chief Justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court; and David Lewis became the first African-American Presiding Judge of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. And while all of these men are African American, it was not the “color of their skin” that garnered these prestigious designations; rather, it was the content of their character, their dedication to their professions and to serving the citizens of this state, and their commitment to excellence.
If the past has taught us nothing more, it has taught us that anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background has the ability to achieve greatness if they are willing to serve and if they are given equal opportunity to learn, grow and prosper. These achievements are certainly points of pride for all citizens of Oklahoma.
As Americans, we all should pause and reflect on the tremendous accomplishments African Americans have made to our community, state, nation and world. By doing so, we aren’t just celebrating Black history, we are celebrating American history.
KENT J. SMITH JR. is president of Langston University.