Weekly Column by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander - Celebrating Black History Month

For the week of February 14, 2005

Posted on February 11, 2005

This is Black History Month. I look forward each year to Black History Month because it always reminds me of my late friend Alex Haley. Every February would find Alex on an all night red-eye flight to Tennessee from a paid speaking engagement in some distant place so that he could drive to some small town and fulfill a commitment he had made months earlier to a fourth grade teacher to help her students celebrate Black History month. Teachers loved Alex’s visits because he had wonderful stories to tell. Stories of Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King. Of the heroes and heroines, both black and white, of the underground railway. Of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Of W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. The most riveting of those stories were the ones Alex Haley learned sitting on the porch steps in Henning, Tennessee, listening to his great aunts and grandma tell stories of his ancestor Kunta Kinte. He used to say that his Aunt Plus, rocking on the porch telling those stories, could knock a firefly out of the sky at 15 feet with an accurate stream of tobacco juice. Once Alex Haley rode across the Atlantic Ocean for three weeks in the belly of a freighter to try to imagine what it was like for Kunta Kinte to be brought from Africa to Annapolis and sold as a slave. Alex spent 13 years tracing what had happened between the arrival in America of Kunta Kinte, his seventh generation grandfather, and Alex’s own birth. He discovered one important piece of that puzzle while speaking in Simpson College in Iowa in the early 1970s. He told students and faculty there that he had found the name of the man who had bought Kunta Kinte on the Annapolis dock, but that he could not trace what happened after that. A faculty member arose and said, “Mr. Haley, my seventh generation grandfather purchased your seventh generation grandfather.” Alex stayed with that faculty member for several weeks and because of that encounter was finally able to weave together the rest of the story of the struggle for freedom which became America’s best-watched television miniseries, the story of Roots. It is in the spirit of Alex Haley, that I have offered a resolution in the United States Senate celebrating Black History Month. The resolution honors the contributions of African Americans throughout the history of our country, recommits the United States Senate to the goals of liberty and equal opportunity for every American, condemns the horrors of slavery, lynching, segregation and other instances in which our country failed to measure up to its noble goals, and pledges to work to improve educational, health and job opportunities for African Americans and all Americans. African Americans were brought forcibly to these shores in the 17th century. From that dark beginning, however, they have overcome great obstacles, and continue to do so, to take a prominent place among the many people of diverse backgrounds who have come together to form a single nation. African Americans have made and continue to make significant contributions to the economic, educational, political, artistic, literary, scientific, and technological advancement of the United States. I have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the study of American history. This is our opportunity – in a month devoted to Black History – to recognize that the history of African Americans in this country is one of the greatest examples of our national quest to reach the high ideals set for us by the Founding Fathers. The Declaration of Independence dedicated us to the proposition that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” Our history is one of striving to reach this lofty ideal. The treatment of African Americans was our most egregious failure. Slavery, lynching, and segregation are all examples of times when this nation failed African Americans and failed to live up to the promise of that fundamental truth that all men are, indeed, created equal. However, for every time that we have failed, we have struggled to come to terms with the disappointment of that failure and recommitted ourselves to trying again. Where there once was slavery, we passed the 13th and 14th Amendments abolishing slavery and declaring equal protection under the law for all races. Where there once was segregation, came Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act. There are so many moments like these in our history, and I am proud to celebrate these with this resolution. In addition, I do not believe that we should simply rest on the accomplishments of the past. We celebrate and remember our history so we can learn its lessons and apply them today. Today’s wrongs are begging for our attention. African Americans in this country face significant and often crippling disparities in education, health care, quality of life, and other areas where the federal government can play a role. The best way for each one of us – and for the United States Senate – to commemorate Black History Month is to get to work on legislation that would offer African Americans and all Americans better access to good schools, quality health care and decent jobs. There is no resolution we can pass in the Senate that will teach one more child to read, prevent one more case of AIDS, or stop one more violent crime. I look forward to working with my colleagues to find ways to look to the future and continue to contribute to this work in progress that is the United States of America. Alex Haley celebrated Black History Month by telling wonderful stories about African Americans and other Americans who believed in the struggle for freedom and the struggle for equality; he minced no words in describing the terrible injustices they overcame. He said to those children that he had flown all night to see that they were living in a wonderful country of great goals and that while many in the past often had failed to reach those goals, we Americans always recommit ourselves to keep trying. It is in that spirit that I introduced my resolution to celebrate Black History Month.