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As we begin the annual celebration of African American History Month, we can all be proud of the diversity of our Federal workforce and encourage all Americans to celebrate the leaders who risked their lives to fight for equality for all Americans, regardless of race.
African American leaders have had a significant impact on this country by serving in the Federal Government. From former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to President Obama, to name just a few, these inspiring men and women have changed the course of American history by breaking down racial barriers as they dedicated their lives to public service.
The theme for this year’s African American History Month, “Hallowed Grounds – Sites of African American Memories,” calls on us to remember the landmark locations across the country where African Americans struggled for freedom and justice. These historic sites include stops along the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass’ home in Washington, D.C., and the famous Beale Street in Memphis, located just six blocks from where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
In his annual Proclamation commemorating National African American History Month, the President encourages us by saying: “As we mark the 40th year of National African American History Month, let us reflect on the sacrifices and contributions made by generations of African Americans, and let us resolve to continue our march toward a day when every person knows the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
One of OPM’s most important missions is to help agencies across government recruit, hire, and retain a dedicated workforce that draws on the skills, character, and experiences of people of all communities in this great nation. Nearly 18 percent of the Federal Workforce is African American. But we know that African Americans are underrepresented in leadership roles and OPM is working with a number of employee and support groups on an Senior Executive Service development program to address this gap.
At OPM, one of the ways we will commemorate this important month will be by hearing from civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, one of our nation’s trailblazer Freedom Riders. In 1961, Mulholland was a 19-year-old Duke University student who had arrived in Jackson, Miss. as part of the Mississippi Freedom Ride. During the course of that summer, African American and white civil rights activists coordinated bus trips throughout the South to protest segregation in bus terminals.
The group gained worldwide attention when blacks used “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters, a challenge to the Jim Crow laws that had been in place since the late 1870’s. They were met with violent protestors, and in some cases, such as Mulholland’s, they were arrested for their heroic actions. But due to their determination and dedication to right a wrong, by late that summer, segregation in bus and train stations was prohibited.
To learn more about Mulholland’s incredible story and her fellow Freedom Riders, check out the American Experience: Freedom Riders documentary from PBS.
Throughout the month of February and during the rest of the year, I hope all of us will take some time to reflect on those who sacrificed so much to create a more inclusive and supportive country for us all.
Each February, our nation pauses to recognize the countless contributions African Americans have made throughout our history. They have helped shape the fabric of our society, our culture, and our growth as a country.
One hundred years ago, Carter G. Woodson, a son of former slaves, created the Association for the Study of African-American Life & History. The association celebrated the first “Negro History Week” in February 1926. Fifty years later, in 1976, February officially became African American History Month when President Gerald Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Each year, the association chooses a theme for the month and this year it is: A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture.
In the past century, our country has witnessed so many changes -- from the civil rights movement to the construction this year of the first National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. African Americans have been instrumental in many of the advancements that have shaped our society and certainly our Federal workforce. Countless African Americans have served the American people, many making significant contributions to government, just as many still do today.
This month, OPM will spotlight African American Federal employees who make a difference every day. They are the history-makers of their time. These dedicated public servants carry on the promise of such trailblazing leaders as former HUD Secretary Patricia Harris, the first African American cabinet member; Jocelyn Elders, the first African American U.S. Surgeon General, and Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. As the month goes on, I look forward to sharing stories of the latest generation of talented and committed African American Federal workers.
Even as we celebrate, we all know that we still have work to do. In September 2014, President Obama issued the “My Brothers Keeper” challenge. The initiative helps young people successfully make the journey from childhood through college and into a career. The program is particularly focused on helping young men of color develop the knowledge and skills necessary to unlock their full potential. Many cities, towns, corporations, and organizations have already made a pledge to this call for action and have plans to implement their pledges over the next few years. These partnerships will not only benefit the young men being mentored, but also help the communities and neighborhoods where they live and work become stronger and more economically viable.
America wouldn’t be the nation it is today without the sacrifices and efforts of those who came before us. When we read and hear the stories of the courageous individuals who wanted to see the American dream fully realized, it reminds us that whatever our race or ethnicity, we all benefit from, and should recognize, African American history.
As President Obama says in this year’s presidential proclamation: “Like the countless, quiet heroes who worked and bled far from the public eye, we know that with enough effort, empathy, and perseverance, people who love their country can change it. Together, we can help our Nation live up to its immense promise.”
And I know that as a Federal family, together, we will continue to live up to that promise.
Each February we celebrate the heritage, achievements and turning points for African Americans in the United States. This year we mark a pivotal moment in our history: 2014 is the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
This year’s theme for the month, “Civil Rights in America,” celebrates that landmark legislation.
As we at OPM work to create a Federal workforce that reflects the bright mosaic of the American people, we should take time to reflect on the trailblazers and civil rights leaders who chose to continue their service to the American people by becoming Federal workers.
Just two years after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he appointed Robert C. Weaver as the first Secretary of the new Department of Housing and Urban Development. Weaver’s Federal service dated back to President Roosevelt’s administration and he became the first African American to hold a Cabinet post.
And we shouldn’t forget that such more well-known African American leaders as Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the United States Supreme Court and Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State were, in fact, Federal workers. Their service, and the example set by President Obama, can be traced back to that July day in 1964 when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
We must carry on with the work of making the Federal government a welcoming and engaging place for all Americans to work. We must make sure that young people making career choices, new members of the Federal service, employees in the middle of their Federal careers and those about to retire get the encouragement and tools they need to succeed.
Here at OPM, leaders are working with the Blacks in Government organization to mentor BIG members and to help mentees reach their professional development goals.
Throughout the history of the civil rights movement in America, people of African descent have formed organizations and coalitions to promote the battle for equal rights. The Colored Convention Movement, the Afro-American League, the Niagara Movement, the National Council of Negro Women, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference carried the banner of equality when allies were few.
In the modern era, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality have fought for and protected equal rights.
In his proclamation commemorating National African American History Month, the President calls on us to “honor the men and women at the heart of this journey – from engineers of the Underground Railroad to educators who answered a free people’s call for a free mind, from patriots who proved that valor knows no color to demonstrators who gathered on the battlefields of justice and marched our Nation toward a brighter day.” You can read the President’s full proclamation.
So during this month and all through the year, we should take time to pause to reflect on where we have come as a nation in the struggle for equality, and what we need to still do to realize the full promise of that groundbreaking piece of legislation that 50 years ago forever changed the face of this great country.
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