Black History Month offers perspective during year of Indiana Bicentennial

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Indiana State Rep. Charlie Brown and Indiana State Sen. Jim Merritt

February 2016 Bicentennial Op-Ed

Americans recognize February as a month of remembrance and tribute. Black History Month encourages us to honor African American heroes and trailblazers. Presidents Day pays tribute to all who have borne the responsibility of our nation’s highest office.

These observances occur this year as we also celebrate 200 years of Indiana statehood – bringing, perhaps, a Hoosier perspective to the topics of black history and the U.S. presidency.

In the days of slavery, many black and white citizens alike bravely helped enslaved Americans from Southern states make their way to freedom through Indiana fields and forests. The men and women escaping from bondage stayed in homes known to be hospitable to them and their cause. These welcoming outposts were known as “stops along the Underground Railroad.”

Through the struggle for civil rights in the 20th century and beyond, African American men and women helped distinguish Indiana as a place that produces leaders. Madam C.J. Walker, for example, was the first woman in America of any race to become a self-made millionaire. Born in the Deep South to formerly enslaved parents, she moved to Indianapolis and built one of the most successful businesses of her time, making and selling beauty and hair-care products, creating jobs for hundreds.

Governor Mike Pence shared one of Madam Walker’s famous quotations with hundreds of fourth-graders visiting the capitol on Statehood Day: “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” This advice remains as useful in our own day as it was in Walker’s.

On Presidents Day, we pay particular attention in Indiana to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln because it was here on Hoosier soil that the 16th president spent his formative years. He was 7 years old when his parents moved their family north across the Ohio River to Spencer County, Indiana, from their previous home in Kentucky. That was in 1816, the same year Indiana became a state.

Lincoln’s legacy intertwines with Black History Month because of his vision of a country in which all men and women would live as free people. Through the tumult of a long civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead, Lincoln — the Great Emancipator — saw his vision become reality.

The fight against racial injustice would continue through another century – and it continues today.

When civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was in Indianapolis campaigning for president. He broke the tragic news to a crowd that had gathered to hear him at a rally. Instead of the campaign speech he had planned, Kennedy spoke about King and his legacy.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort,” Kennedy said. “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”

So it is with Indiana. All Hoosiers play a role in deciding what kind of state we are and in what direction, together, we will move.

Beyond making 2016 a memorable bicentennial celebration let’s do our part to make the next century of Indiana history the best it can be.

Learn more about the Indiana Bicentennial at Indiana2016.org.

Indiana State Rep. Charlie Brown and Indiana State Sen. Jim Merritt are members of the Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

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