During this Black History Month, I have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the deep-rooted history of my people in the United States.
I honor the lives of my ancestors and the sacrifices they’ve made for their decedents. From the moment the first slave ship arrived on the shores of this country to the Emancipation Proclamation, the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era, the Black Power movement and now the Black Lives Matter movement, each landmark moment in time contributes to our collective history.
It’s impossible to summarize the significance of black history and contributions of black people in just one month, let alone one column. So I’ve decided to pay tribute to two individuals, Frederick Douglass and Whitney Young. I chose these two individuals for their unique ability to seek equality with dignity and strength.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. He barely knew his mother and knew only the color of his father’s skin, which was opposite to his own. The wife of Douglass’ first slave owner taught him to read and write at a young age before he was sent to a ruthless slave owner, who often beat Douglass.
With education and perseverance, Douglass freed himself from the confines of enslavement and became a great abolitionist, writer and orator. Douglass’ eloquent words are woven into the very fabric of our American history. To this day, the words of Frederick Douglass remain relevant, such as, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” and “The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.”
Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln had a historic friendship built upon mutual respect. Douglass, an exceptional statesman, served as an adviser to President Lincoln and ambassador to Haiti. In 1872, Douglass was the first African American to be nominated for the role of vice president by the Equal Rights Party.
Whitney Young was a committed leader during the Civil Rights era. Young served in World War II, headed the Georgia branch of the NAACP, was appointed executive director of the National Urban League and served as a presidential adviser for former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Young became known for his domestic Marshall Plan, a strategy thought to have helped frame President Johnson’s urban policies. Young went on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1968. While serving as the national executive director of the Urban League, Young played a major role in providing new job and career opportunities for blacks across the country, many in the major corporations of that time.
Young once said, “I am not anxious to be the loudest voice or the most popular. But I would like to think that at a crucial moment, I was an effective voice of the voiceless, an effective hope of the hopeless.”
Throughout his life, Young fought to ensure blacks had a seat at the table and ladders for opportunities.
Both Douglass and Young are strong pillars in the history of black America. Both individuals exhibited unique leadership characteristics to further the cause for freedom and equality in their time. Douglass was a stern, vocal abolitionist who demanded freedom, while Young was a charismatic leader who brokered opportunities and power to the benefit of black communities across the nation.
I encourage every American concerned about freedom and rights being threatened — be it in criminal justice, immigration, health care, education, etc. — to remember “power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Continue to organize locally, statewide and nationally to pursue justice. Define your purpose, and carve out your contributions. Before you know it, you will find that you can make a resounding impact and create a better world for generations to come.