Celebrating Black History Month
February is Black History Month!
For African-Americans in the United States, their history has not always been a pleasant one. From slavery to racial inequality in the 1960s to today’s fear of police brutality, black Americans have seen plenty of injustice and violence. Despite all this, many black Americans, both past and present, have left their mark on our culture and politics. For Black History Month, we honor people like:
- Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and other early abolitionists who spoke out against slavery
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and other icons of the Civil Rights movement
- Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Muhammad Ali, Venus and Serena Williams, and other outstanding athletes
- Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and other past culture icons, plus current ones, like Beyoncé, Oprah Winfrey, and Meghan Markle
In the legal field, there are dozens of people and events to celebrate for Black History Month.
One of the most prominent African-American legal figures is Thurgood Marshall. Following his law school graduation in 1933, Marshall became an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). One of his cases was the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. In 1967, Marshall was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the Supreme Court. He was the first African-American to serve as a justice. He served on the Supreme Court for 24 years, participating in historic cases like Roe v. Wade. Upon his retirement, he was replaced by Clarence Thomas, the second African-American justice on the Supreme Court.
There are many other black Americans who made legal history. In 1869, George Lewis Ruffin became the first black graduate of Harvard Law School. He later went on to become the first black judge in Massachusetts. In 1872, Charlotte E. Ray became the first black female attorney in the United States and the first women admitted to practice before the Supreme Court, although other sources say that Lucy Terry Prince, a former slave from Africa, was the first woman to argue before a judge of the Supreme Court, all the way back in 1796.
The Supreme Court
Black Americans have also been at the center of some landmark Supreme Court cases. The most famous of these is Brown v. The Board of Education, but another noteworthy case is its predecessor, Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. This case concerned Homer Plessy, a mixed-race man who was arrested after sitting in a whites-only section of a train. The Supreme Court found that as long as the black section of the train car was the same as the whites-only section, it was not unconstitutional to separate the two. This led to the idea of “separate but equal,” which was used to justify segregation until 1954.
Changing the Constitution
Additionally, the rights of African-Americans have directly influenced three Constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and other forms of indentured servitude in 1865. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, gave all male Americans the right to vote, regardless of race, though women, of any race, were still not able to vote until 1920. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment, passed in 1964, was also a result of attempts to disenfranchise black voters by requiring a tax at polling stations. With the Twenty-Four Amendment, the policy of poll taxes was abolished.
The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and other forms of indentured servitude in 1865, and Fifteenth Amendment, passed in 1870, which gives all Americans the right to vote, regardless of race.
Honoring and Acknowledging
In modern politics, we are still seeing many first for African-Americans. Eric Holder, former Attorney General of the United States, was the first black person to serve in this position. Condoleezza Rice was the first black female Secretary of State during George W. Bush’s administration. And of course, Barack Obama made history in 2008.
The purpose of Black History Month is to honor all the great black Americans in our nation’s history, but to also acknowledge the everyday greatness of the 14 million African-Americans living in the United States today. Without the contributions of black Americans, our culture, history, and even our Constitution would be vastly different, and Black History Month is a time to acknowledge and appreciation those contributions!
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