- Cassandra M. Chandler
- Assistant Director
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- Black History Month Celebration
- Washington, DC
- February 22, 2005
Some wonder, "Why do we keep celebrating Black History Month?" It is because Black History Month is a very special time of year. Granted, we do not become less black on March 1st. And we take pride in our heritage all year long. But by setting aside this month, we set our heritage apart. We take it from the pages of history books and bring it to life. We take the time to remember, to reunite, and to rededicate ourselves to our history. And what a glorious history it is!
When I consider Black history, I think of it as a narrative of people crossing color lines....and fulfilling dreams. African-Americans have long struggled to understand their place in society. With each passing decade, we have pushed the color line forward, widened the circle, and moved closer to America's promise of equality.
During Black History Month, we honor the memory of African-Americans like Dr. Martin Luther King, as we celebrate current history makers like Dr. Condoleezza Rice. We remember the greatness of Jackie Robinson breaking down color barriers in sports, and then cheer as Tiger Woods sets another record. These and so many other heroes pushed color lines and then broke through them, forever altering America's history.
In my view, the most dramatic example of African-Americans pushing a color line is that of slavery. It saddens me to see some of us trying to distance ourselves from that piece of history. Others try to minimize it. In fact, I recently looked at my son's American History textbook and noticed that the discussion of slavery in America only filled half a page — in a two-and-a-half-inch thick book.
Take a minute to think about the great power that has emerged from great suffering.
Think about the men and women who endured the capture and beatings in Africa, but did not give up and die.
Think about the fortitude of the 12 million who endured the middle passage, packed in leaky ships, weak from starvation and disease, but did not give up and die.
Think about the strength of the families that were divided and sold on the blocks like cattle when they arrived on American shores, but did not give up and die.
Think about the courage of those who endured Jim Crow's separatism, and the beatings and hangings from hooded riders in the dead of night.
Think about those who were killed just for holding a book or learning to read, but whose children persisted, and became great inventors, writers, doctors and scientists.
None of them gave up.
It is their blood that runs through our veins. We are the children of survivors — the strongest of the strong. We are descended from faithful and courageous men and women who beat the odds, who led us into new frontiers, and who crossed color lines — literally breaking chains of oppression to fulfill their dreams. As the poet Maya Angelou remarked, "And, still I rise." That is our history. A history to take pride in and celebrate.
One of my most beloved heroes is a former slave named Harriet Tubman. A picture of Sister Tubman fearlessly leading slaves through the Underground Railroad graces the walls in both my home and my office, and reminds me daily of her strength and courage.
Her life has shaped my life. Her history has helped mold me into the woman that I am. Harriet Tubman was a woman of great faith who allowed God to guide her through frequent prayer. She was a dreamer, always envisioning and working towards a better day, not just for herself but for her people. She was a trailblazer, creating new paths through rugged and dangerous terrain to lead a disheartened people to freedom. She never stopped fighting, never stopped pushing that color line, never turned away from a challenge — whether it meant openly defying the South by leading more than 300 slaves to freedom, or by helping the Union cause as an army spy, guide, and nurse.
Harriet Tubman felt the pain of the stones of hatred and prejudice that were thrown at her. But instead of cowering before those who cast stones, she faced them with a head held high, her eyes fixed upon a higher cause. She picked up each stone thrown her way — whether it was a cruel word, a beating, or a lack of food and shelter — and used it to make her stronger. Then, she laid the stones behind her to create a sturdy path for me — for you — to follow.
This is how she described it: "When I found that I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now [that] I was free. There was such a glory over everything...I felt like I was in heaven."
I get goose bumps every time I recite her words, because I can feel what she must have felt at that moment. Harriet Tubman had crossed the ultimate color line. The glory of achieving her dream changed her. Her determination to spread freedom changed the course of history.
Flash forward in time — last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown versus the Board of Education, a decision which ended racial segregation in America's public schools. A young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall argued the case. For Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of a slave, it was beyond time to cross that color line.
Marshall, you see, had to fight to get the education he deserved. He attended segregated schools in Baltimore. He went to college in Pennsylvania because Maryland's universities were segregated. After graduating with honors, he applied to attend the University of Maryland College Park School of Law and was rejected — solely because of his race.
Marshall never forgot that rejection, that "stone." In fact, it inspired him to push the color line. He earned his J.D. at Howard University's law school, and then crusaded against segregated universities in the 1940s before arguing the Brown case in 1954. In rejecting Marshall, the University of Maryland rejected the very man who would bring their segregated system down. A man who would achieve something none of its other graduates achieved — the honor of becoming a Supreme Court Justice.
This is our heritage. This is our history. Remember it. Celebrate it. And understand that our history is our future.
When challenges seem insurmountable, turn around and survey the road that others have paved for you — the Harriet Tubmans, the Thurgood Marshalls, the heroes and trailblazers of your own family. Let their stories inspire you. Let their resilience encourage you. They never gave up and blamed others for their difficulties, but instead dreamed of a better day and willingly took on the challenge of crossing color lines to fulfill those dreams.
Let me take you back in time once more, to a rural town in Louisiana in the late 1960s. It was more than 10 years after the Supreme Court required in the Brown decision that the nation desegregate its schools with "all deliberate speed." In this town, a young black girl became one of the first children in her district to be bused into a previously segregated all white elementary school.
Each day, as her bus approached the school grounds, it was met by a mob of angry white parents who walked a color line, held up cruelly-worded picket signs and shouted obscenities at the bus of black children. Each day, as the bus rolled through the gates of the school, this young girl would yell out the window in her loudest, most defiant voice: "Three, six, nine...three, six, nine, we have crossed your picket line!" When the angry mob heard those words they would pick up stones and throw them at the little girl on the school bus.
My memory of those stones is vivid, because I was that little girl. And though I regret all the dents in the bus, I will never regret my defiance. I recall that I never felt afraid of those angry parents who walked the picket line in my hometown, and I was never belittled by their hateful words.
I had courage because my mother had shared with me the history of our people. I had courage because my mother had taught me to take pride in and learn from our history. I had courage because my mother had given to me, as a child, the gift of faith in God.
And so, even then, I knew that no color lines, no picket signs, no stones could prevail against me. I was part of a larger history. The knowledge of that history has sustained me and given me the strength to cross many color lines in my lifetime.
Recently, my hometown newspaper ran a feature about me with the subheading, "Ex-Resident Climbs FBI Hierarchy." What a difference from years earlier when some in that same town threw stones at me and tried to keep me out of the public school. That's a part of my history that my family, and especially my son, will never forget.
In the case of Justice Thurgood Marshall, today, the University of Maryland College Park School of Law has been folded into the University of Maryland — which is home to the Thurgood Marshall Law Library. That's a part of Marshall's history that we will never forget.
And as for Harriet Tubman, today the Freedom Center, a museum, learning center and research lab in Cincinnati, pays tribute to her courage in building the Underground Railroad. That's a part of Harriet's history that our children will never forget.
In the spiritual "Find Us Faithful" by Steven Green, he offers these words: "After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone, and our children sift through all we've left behind; May the clues that they discover, and the memories they uncover, become the light that leads them to the road we each must find."
And so I encourage you: Take strength from our history. Our freedom and equality is the product of the strength, courage and faith of those who have gone before us. Remember their stories, and live out new ones in your life which can be passed on to future generations.
Keep crossing the color lines. Keep fulfilling your dreams. And let the history of a great people empower you to be the great history makers of tomorrow.