February is nationally recognized as Black History Month, a time where we acknowledge and celebrate everything African-Americans have given to this country, as well as a time to look back and learn from the wrongs the country wrought upon them as a people. There have been a tremendous amount of African-American individuals who have fundamentally changed this country, although many are still not truly recognized for how much they shaped our present. On the beginning days of Black History Month, we look back on the most prominent figures who made American history, people we should look back on as those who truly made their entire race feel recognized.
Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman
Two of the most prominent abolitionists in the 1800s, the history of African-Americans in this country cannot be completed without the inclusion of Douglas and Tubman. Both at one point slaves, the two abolitionists dedicated much of their freed lives to eliminating slavery, with Harriet Tubman being vital to the Underground Railroad. Much of African-American history would not exist without their dedicated work to free their brothers and sisters from bondage, forever inspiring future generations to not give up hope in a country which constantly beat them down.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Perhaps no other man has impacted the Civil Rights movement in this country as the young pastor of Georgia did. The activist captured much of his beliefs into his final speech before his death, stating that he simply “...want[s] to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” King wanted to create a world where the next generation of African-American men and women could live equally, and he lived that message until the day he died.
If MLK rested on one side of the Civil Rights coin, Malcolm X was the man who stood on the other. While his ideology was much less peaceful than that of MLK, his impact on Black History in America cannot be undone. He served as a strong stepping off point for African-American autonomy and pride in oneself, and his impact cannot be forgotten.
An activist and one of the greatest poets of our time, Maya Angelou, like many passionate artists, poured her heart and soul into the work she did. The pain of racism and trauma was embedded into works such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, bringing further attention to the racial inequality in America at the time. She used her poems to draw white support for Civil Rights and make it become a reality, stating herself that “it is impossible to struggle for Civil Rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair pay, justice, are all like the air: we all have it, or none of us have it.”
A sports icon, the first African-American Major League Baseball player has cemented himself in athletic history. He faced deep discrimination on and off the field, but despite all that he endured, he continued to play the sport he adored as he did not care if the other teams accepted him for who he was. He was a man who fought for equality by simply not listening to what others said about him, as he himself stated that he “...never cared about acceptance as much as I cared about respect."
Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson
The first black candidate for a major party ticket for President and one of the most successful black candidates for President respectively, these two politicians paved the way for future African-Americans seeking higher positions in the American federal government. They kept the hope alive that perhaps it was possible for someone of African descent to enter the White House as President, being the shoulders many future prominent black political figures would come to stand on.
The 44th president of the United States, it is hard to undercut how important Obama being the first African-American President is to the history of this nation, no matter how you feel about his political stances. Becoming the President in the country that once enslaved his ancestors shows how far we have come as a nation, and how much more we still have to grow. Millions of African-American children were able to look towards the White House and believe they held the ability to become the President, inspired by the success of a man who broke through the mold.
The amount of African-American figures who have changed this country are too many to name. Singers like Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson showed that African-Americans could break through into the mainstream entertainment industry with grit and their own raw talent. Much like Jackie Robinson, Muhammed Ali and Jesse Owens faced deep discrimination in sports that they adored, persevering and paving the way for future stars of the craft. Entertainers like Richard Pryor and Oprah Winfrey have impacted much of America’s culture through their humor and personalities. The impact of African-American figures in our culture is astounding, giving us reason to celebrate them for how much they as a people have changed our country.
In a way, the history of African figures and culture within the United States is a history of the country itself, fighting from bondage to equality while paving their own unique road. Our country has made great strides since those prejudiced days, but we still must do so much more for this country. We may be equal in the eyes of the law, but equity runs incredibly low. This month is a time to celebrate the African-American figures who have made their impact upon our history, but also a time to ensure we do not forget the hardship many still continue to face every single day.