Feb. 1, 2020
As we celebrate Black History Month, let us pause to celebrate four Black Trailblazers (all were recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom) that we lost in the last 10 months; and a new, young Black Trailblazer who shone a light of hope for all of us.
Congressman John Lewis: As the Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC”), he was the youngest speaker (at age 23) at the March on Washington in 1963, where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. This was one of the events in 1963 that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Then, on Sunday, March 7, 1965, as a leader of a column of peaceful marchers protesting for the right of Black citizens to register and vote in Selma, Alabama, John was almost beaten to death by law enforcement officers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The footage of that event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” was shown on the nightly news programs of all the national TV networks, and it shocked the nation. This caused President Johnson to throw his full support behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he signed into law a few months later.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. C.T. Vivian: Both carried on the long tradition of Black Church leaders in the South playing a central role in speaking up for civil rights, and they worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC. Prof. Henry Louis Gates will premiere part one of a documentary in Black History Month on “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song” on Feb. 6, 2021, (check the schedule of your local PBS station).
Hank Aaron: Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career homerun record when he hit homer number 715 while playing for the Atlanta Braves in 1974. The closer he got to breaking the record, the more hate mail, death threats, and verbal insults he received. But, Hank never lost his cool, and for decades after he hung up his cleats in 1976, he was a civil rights activist and a generous philanthropist.
Why Did They Still Have Hope? All of these civil rights leaders remained hopeful and optimistic about our future as a country and our ability to keep building the Beloved Community, in spite of the hatred and violence thrown at them. John Lewis was recently asked what gives him hope, and he said we needed to walk in his shoes. For example, he was attending a Black History Month Celebration at a school in South Alabama recently, and he saw the schoolchildren were re-enacting the Selma March on Bloody Sunday, and the young male student out in front was wearing the same clothing John had worn that fateful day: a light rain coat, a white shirt and tie, and a back pack. John was pleased to see that the young student playing him was a young white boy. This hope continues as a new Trailblazer, poet Amanda Gorman, so eloquently reminded us on Jan. 20, 2021:
“The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
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