Governor Dean's Statement on Black History Month
February 1, 2004
“Today marks the beginning of Black History Month. For centuries, African-Americans have made important contributions to our nation-from Langston Hughes and Billie Holliday to Booker T. Washington and Muhammed Ali to Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall. In my state, we remember the pioneer Rev. Alexander Twilight, believed to be America's first African-American college graduate and the first African American state legislator. More specifically, though, this month is a chance to remember the American heroes who fought for civil rights and a chance to consider how much more we have to do.
“My own memories of the battles for civil rights in this country begin with a Sunday morning in September 1963. I was 14 years old and just beginning the 10th grade. I remember very well the tragic bombing in Birmingham and the senseless deaths of those four girls: Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14). These girls were my age. I knew then that America needed to change.
“It was an important time in our nation's history, and thanks to the tireless efforts of leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, as well as countless others less well known and less remembered, our country began to change. The intervening decades have seen the fruits of their labor: the growth of the black middle class, improved race relations and increased opportunities for all minorities.
“America still needs change though. We must never forget the things that these young girls died for-equality for all Americans, programs for affirmative action that ensure access for all Americans when it comes time to apply for a job or for a place in college, and the freedom for everyone to live ordinary lives free of hate and discrimination. Forty years after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, we still have much work to do, but I have confidence that working together as a community there's nothing that we can't accomplish.
“Civil rights now in the 21st century is not just about equal legal rights, it is about economic justice-ensuring equal access to jobs, capital and credit. It's about ensuring that every American is able to own their own home and, if they desire, their own business. As Dr. King said, we can never be satisfied until every American is equal in opportunity and voice.
“This battle for economic justice and equal rights is not one for any one people-it is a constant battle that we must all engage in-for it is only when white people and black people and brown people vote together, that's when we make true progress in this country.
“We need to continue to talk openly about race in this country, and the ongoing struggle to ensure equal rights for all Americans. We need to talk about justice again in this country, and what an America based on justice should look like-an America with justice in our tax code, justice in our health care system, and justice in our hearts as well as our laws.
“This has never been and never will be an easy struggle. But it is one in which we must prevail. As Carter Woodson said in 1926 as he founded what at the time was called Negro History Week, 'What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.'
“Therefore, it is particularly appropriate that this Black History Month coincides with the start of the 2004 election season. At a time when we salute people like Fannie Lou Hamer, the four little girls in Birmingham, the Freedom Riders and others, there is no better way to honor them then to do what they fought and died for the right to do.
“Maintaining 40 years of amazing progress begins with a one simple act: your vote.”