On February 11, 1790, the Society of Friends petitioned the United States House of Representatives to abolish the slave trade.
It would be 73 years later, on January 1, 1863, before the Emancipation Proclamation would be signed by President Lincoln.
Another 100 years later, on August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would reference that historic signing in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
These moments were a call for change. Important voices asking on all of us to make a change that was right and just for all people. The moment in black history that I recall most often is Barbara Jordan’s keynote address at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. It was her second visit to that national podium. Barbara had addressed the convention in 1976 as well. That speech was amazing, and is considered one of the top 100 speeches in history. But in 1992, she called her remarks “Change: from What to What?” For change was still an important issue.
Barbara Jordan was a true leader. She was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate and the first black female elected to the House of Representatives. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among numerous other honors. In 1973, she began to suffer from multiple sclerosis. She was intentionally private about her life and her health, not wanting any distractions from her work and her commitment to change.
Here are some of Barbara’s words from 1992:
“There appears to be a general apprehension about the future which undermines our confidence in ourselves and each other. The American idea that tomorrow will be better than today has become de-stabilized…. Public policy makers are held in low regard. Mistrust abounds.”
“We need to change inner cities into places where hope lives. We should answer Rodney King’s haunting question, ‘Can we all get along?’ with a resounding ‘YES.’ We must profoundly change from the deleterious environment of the eighties, characterized by greed, selfishness, mega-mergers, and debt-overhang to one characterized by devotion to the public interest and tolerance. And yes, love.”
“We are one, we Americans, and we reject any intruder who seeks to divide us by race or class. We honor cultural identity. However, separatism is not allowed. Separatism is not the American way…America’s strength is rooted in its diversity.”
Another 26 years have gone by, and Barbara’s call for change remains relevant and all too real. Our progress seems to move so slowly. The inspiration of many who we honor this month should help all of us keep our focus on the potential of tomorrow, where our full strength is fully realized and the dream of generations is finally real.
February is a good month to focus on acting in ways that bring all of us together. To truly hear the words of so many leaders who have urged us forward as a nation of respect and opportunity for all. To practice humility and kindness. To listen and learn.
“We are one, we Americans.”