"Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history."
So said Carter G. Woodson, Ph.D., the scholar and historian who is called "The Father of Black History," and who founded Negro History Week in 1926 to help give this record and inspiration to other Black Americans.
At the time, Woodson was alarmed because so few people, White or Black, knew anything at all about Black history and Black people's achievements. He would even meet other Black college history professors who had no idea Blacks had made any significant contributions to national or world history. Dr. Woodson understood just how critical it was to claim our rightful place in the history books, and so the national celebration of Black history was born.
As times changed, Negro History Week became Black History Week, and 30 years ago it officially became Black History Month. But throughout the years the celebration's symbolism and important message has always remained the same. This year, Black History Month falls at a time when recent losses have already made many of us reflect on our history and how far we've come.
After Rosa Parks' passing in October and Coretta Scott King's passing in January, many people felt they had witnessed the end of an era. Parks and King were indeed two of the towering figures in Black American history, and I hope all of our children now know exactly who they were and what they stood for. Who else should we be sure to teach our children about to inspire them?
They should know about our earliest heroes, like Phillis Wheatley and Benjamin Banneker. Freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and so many others who were born in slavery but never gave up in their passion to be free. They should know about the next generation of brilliant Black leaders and thinkers like W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and about pioneering inventors and educators like George Washington Carver and Carter Woodson himself. They should study the Harlem Renaissance and the writers, musicians and artists who bloomed there and changed American culture forever.
They should learn about civil rights leaders A. Phillip Randolph, whose first threatened March on Washington inspired the second; and Ralph Bunche, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his U.N. peacemaking efforts in the Middle East. He, like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize 14 years later, and saw the connection between the quest for justice at home and globally and the need to stand against violence at home and everywhere.
They must celebrate all the women who were indispensable in the struggle for freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Septima Clark and so many more; they must bask in the pioneers who broke barriers throughout the 20th century including Marian Anderson, the Tuskegee Airmen, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Shirley Chisholm and Mae Jemison.
Of course they should applaud our still-living legends: civil and human rights leaders like Myrlie Evers and Dorothy Height; scholars like John Hope Franklin; and cultural leaders like Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou.
Finally, we should teach our children as much as we can about the heroes in their own families and try to be the people we want our children to become: the generations who came before them and paved their way.
This is a key lesson not just for Black History Month but every day. At Coretta Scott King's funeral, leader after leader spoke about how hard she worked during her lifetime as a champion of freedom and justice, and juggled movement building with motherhood and reminded us all about how much still needed to be done to realize her husband's dream — America's dream.
Every time we look back at our history to celebrate, we must remind ourselves and our children of just how much unfinished business we must attend to and be inspired by our history to write the next chapter.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.