Be Ever Vigilant: No Turning Back

Cheer black progress but still speak out

A new Black History Month ad by Google featuring some of the search engine’s “most searched” terms has gained a lot of attention. It begins with a simple statement: “There are moments in American history that captivate us all.” Viewers then see images from the top Google searches for 20 of those historic moments.

As the ad ends with the “most searched speech” and a clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sharing his dream for America at the March on Washington, we see that all of these celebrated moments and accomplishments feature black Americans.

At too many points in our national experience, black history and American history have seemed to tell different stories. But we need to continue to search out and celebrate every moment where we see the threads of our separate stories woven together.

Native American history, black history, Latino history, Asian American history, women’s history, immigrant history, and LGBTQ history—are all American history. President Barack Obama’s election was a nation defining moment. On the day of his first inauguration, the sea of nearly two million multicolored faces cheering together on the National Mall confirmed its historic impact, not just for black Americans, but for all Americans.

In today’s tumultuous times it often feels as if our nation is veering off course and our divisions are being exploited and threatening to unravel our national fabric. In this current election year, I hope we can reaffirm the promise and hope of that moment.

Everywhere one looked on that historic day there were reminders of how black history and American history converge. Journalists pointed out that our Capitol was built with slave labor and our National Mall sits on land that once held slave markets.

At the opening ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial the Sunday before his swearing in, President Obama, surrounded by monuments to our most revered leaders, reminded our nation of that “most searched speech” that took place on that sacred ground: “Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content.” Civil rights giants Dr. Dorothy Height and John Lewis, members of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen, and many other trailblazers for liberty bore quiet witness by their presence.

During the inauguration ceremony the late Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and reminded all Americans of our nation’s original promise to “let freedom ring.” During his benediction, Rev. Joseph Lowery quoted a stanza of the song we call our Negro National Anthem, James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

For all of us who immediately recognized those beloved words the symbolism was overwhelming. For over a hundred years, every time that hymn has been played in church sanctuaries, school auditoriums, or community meetings it allowed black Americans to sing our own song about our faith in America’s promise of liberty and hope for the future.

Rev. Lowery didn’t recite every line, like those that speak of the bitter obstacles overcome and the bloodshed along the way. He didn’t need to. As part of the blessing of our nation and its new President, the Negro National Anthem became—at long last—part of the larger American hymn. And as President Barack Obama’s name was added to a list that began with George Washington and First Lady Michelle Obama graciously stepped into her role, we watched with pride the next chapters in Black and American history coming together before our eyes.

The book is still being written. As we celebrate Black History Month this year, this is a time to celebrate and cheer past progress but it is no time to drop our vigilance.

All Americans must remain vigilant and help our nation move ahead to fully include all its peoples. All of the people beginning with its children. We must continue to speak out, organize, vote and challenge any effort to undermine the progress made to date. We’ve come this far along the way and must continue to work for a nation where no child is left behind.

Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children's Defense Fund.