In an effort to celebrate Black History Month and the achievements of black leaders past and present, Maryland’s Fifth Congressional District held its 35th annual commemoration breakfast on Feb. 6 at the Camelot by Martin’s in Upper Marlboro.
The theme of the breakfast was “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African-American Memories.” Hundreds of constituents and community leaders attended the event which had guest speakers including U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), as well as U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
“All across our country including here in Maryland, there are places imbued with black history,” Hoyer said. “Sites that move us by their memories and the lessons they impart. In particular, I want to mention three sites in our country that have a particular resonance for me, where black history comes to life for me in a deeply personal way.”
The first place Hoyer spoke about was his trip to Selma, Ala., with fellow friend and Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights activist who has not only dedicated his life to protecting human rights and securing civil liberties, but also remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements by building what he calls “the beloved community” in America.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis led more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on March 7, 1965. Although the march from Selma to Montgomery was intended to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state, the protestors were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday,” according to Lewis’ website.
Because Lewis risked his life in challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South, Hoyer said the experience from that trip inspired him more than ever to continue the work of fighting for the rights of all Americans so they can exercise their power to vote.
“Every March, I travel with John and many of our colleagues to Selma to commemorate the anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery and ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1965,” Hoyer said. “It is one of the most powerful experiences one can have, walking in the footsteps of those who were filled with determination to brave extreme violence to demand their fundamental equality in our democracy.”
The second place Hoyer spoke about was Maryland.
“I had the honor of representing Prince George’s County in the state senate earlier in my career and I’ve spent a lot of time at the state house in Annapolis,” he said. “A large part of my motivation to serve in public office came from the impact of the civil rights movement on my values and principles as a young man.”
In 1996, a statue of Thurgood Marshall — the principle attorney who successfully argued for the end of school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education — was dedicated on the state house grounds. It was a touching tribute of a young man who would become the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, Hoyer said.
“When I return to the state house to meet with Maryland lawmakers and see that statue of Justice Marshall, I am reminded of how the tireless work of individuals like [him] dedicated to justice under the law ultimately brought about the full meaning of the words in our Declaration [of Independence]: ‘all men are created equal,’” Hoyer said.
The third, and perhaps most important, place Hoyer mentioned was the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
“From my office in the United States Capitol, I can look out the window and see the Lincoln Memorial and the vast expanse of the National Mall where hundreds of thousands of people gathered in 1963,” he said. “Today, a memorial to Dr. King stands nearby and just down the Mall a new Smithsonian Museum is rising out of the earth where people from every corner of America and all across the world will learn about the tragedies and the triumphs of black history.”
From where he stand in the building where the nation’s laws are made, Hoyer said he feels the weight of King’s words and is certain of his purpose in continuing that legacy of fighting for equal opportunity to ensure a better future.
“The Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Marshal statue at the Maryland State House and the Lincoln Memorial are my steady reminders of those three core principles for which black history calls me to act — equality, justice and opportunity,” Hoyer said. “And as we celebrate black history month together, let us all be inspired by the sites and memories where people came together to fight for all three so that we may continue to do so together.”
A key figure who is fighting for equal justice under law is Lynch, the first African-American woman to hold the title of U.S. attorney general. As the nation’s top federal law enforcement official, Lynch is a senior member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet and oversees a range of agencies at the justice department including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which Hoyer is working closely with other federal, state and local officials to bring its new headquarters to Prince George’s County.
Lynch — a native of Greensboro, N.C., — grew up during the civil rights movement and saw firsthand how much was sacrificed to secure the promise of equal access to the ballot, education and economic opportunity.
“Every February, this country takes an opportunity to look back at the extraordinary journey that is black history in America,” Lynch said. “This year’s theme … commemorates the places that bore silent witness to the struggle for freedom, that sheltered us along the path towards equality and that have been consecrated by the spirits of those who gave their lives in pursuit of the more perfect union that is the birthright of us all. … I like to think that the hopes of equality and the dreams of full participation in American life were transmitted to those of us who work to make those hopes and dreams come true every day.”
Lynch said she is proud to lead a department that is as committed as ever to making this nation’s promises real for all Americans no matter what they look like, where they’re from, where they live or whom they love.
“We learn that justice is not reserved for those in high positions or with great titles, but is held in the hearts and hands of ordinary people,” she said. “The department of justice is the only Cabinet office that is named for an ideal. Our work touches the fabric, and the places, of American life from the courtroom to the classroom, from our voting booths to our border areas and from rural towns to city streets. … I could not be more proud of the women and men who are doing their part not only to preserve the tremendous gains we have made as a country and as a people, but to expand them to broaden the circle of opportunity for ourselves and for generations to come.”
In addition, Lynch said broadening those opportunities will require more than the efforts of one department; it will require strong men and women of good character who will advance communities and speak on behalf of the most vulnerable.
“I am well aware that obstacles lie before us particularly at a time like this when Americans are anxious about the future, when long-simmering fissures erupt anew and when it seems at times that the voices that tempt us to give in to fear and division and futility are louder than ever before,” Lynch said. “In recent months, we’ve seen tensions boil over into unrest. … And we’ve seen hateful rhetoric creep into our public discourse, urging us to choose the easy path of blame and suspicion over the much harder road of conversation and support.”
Although the pursuit of justice, the struggle for liberty and the quest for equality has never been easy and progress has never been certain, Lynch said blacks must be reminded of the great strength and courage King exemplified in the face of danger and oppression.
In the words of King, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” If people pledge their courage and their conviction to the cause of progress, then there is nothing they can’t achieve, she said.
“That is why commemorations like this one are so important,” Lynch said. “Because by looking to the challenges of the past, we find strength to meet the difficulties of the present. … As Dr. King said, ‘nothing could stop the marching feet of a determined people.’ We are no less determined today; and so, the march goes on to bring unity to a nation too often divided, to bring equality to a society too often riven by prejudice and to bring justice to our beloved community today and in the days to come. … I look forward to standing with you and marching by your side as we continue that sacred work together.”