Almost 250 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
These words are as important today as they were then. But as self-evident as these truths may be, we know from history that they don’t always reflect reality. While all people are equal, not all people are seen that way. They’re not always treated that way.
Too often, the phrase “All men are created equal” has only been true in theory, not in practice.
Take the very man who wrote those words. Thomas Jefferson was a great president and a greater philosopher. He was a statesman without equal. He also owned slaves. Over six hundred men, women, and children who had no rights under the law, least of all liberty.
Our country has changed a lot since then – because we now know what those words really mean. They don’t describe our nation as it is so much as our nation as it is striving to be. They’re an ideal to aspire to. A goal to reach. A dream to achieve.
Our country has changed a lot since then – because of the efforts of millions who worked to change it. Some stood up when they were told to sit. Others sat when they were told to stand. Some wrote speeches and others wrote songs. Some marched and some were martyred. All of them dreamed.
Our country has changed a lot since then – and understanding how it changed is the reason we have Black History Month.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote from a prison cell that “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through tireless efforts.”1 Black History Month is a chance for all Americans to study, celebrate, and learn from these efforts.
The efforts of people like Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker, who in 1780 fought for their freedom in the courts – and won. People like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery and then worked to end it using any means they could. People like W.E.B. Du Bois and Mary Burnett Talbert, who understood that freedom from slavery did not automatically lead to equality. People like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers. Jackie Robinson and Serena Williams, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
People whose names we don’t know, but whose efforts changed our country nonetheless.
They were writers and teachers, ministers and business owners, athletes and musicians, and everything in between. They came from different places and believed different things and used different methods. None were perfect because nobody is. But they each strived to open the door to liberty a little wider – not just for Black Americans, but for all Americans. So that all of us could fit inside. Because as Doctor King said in that same prison cell, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This is why Black History Month is so important. Because Black history is American history. It’s the history of Americans moving America closer and closer to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence: That we are all equal.
Of course, we know from recent events that the journey isn’t over. It will never be over. People of all races, religions, and creeds will have to constantly keep the door open. Black history didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation, or the 15th Amendment, or Brown vs. Board of Education. Black Americans are making history now. Today. Black history – American history – will be made long after tomorrow.
I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
I’m so grateful for all those who made it possible for me to be where I am today. I’m grateful for a chance to learn their stories and study their history. Our history.
I’m grateful for Black History Month.
1 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html