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Black History Month Hero

Moments in Black History

Rutgers Today

To mark Black History Month this year, Rutgers Today asked members of the university community to share reflections on people and moments from the past that have special meaning to them.

We received recollections of those who fought for freedom, equal rights and dignity for all, and a call to address systemic racism that continues to afflict the nation. As we celebrate the great accomplishments of Black Americans this month, we also recognize that 28 days is not enough to honor the names that are familiar and the people who were never able to have their contributions recognized. 

Honoring Those Whose Names Are Lost to History 

Jonathan Holloway 
President and University Professor  

In February we honor the great African American men and women in our past. We have grown accustomed, in fact, to touting the accomplishments of now-familiar Black inventors and scientists and activists and entertainers. It is important to realize, however, that that which is now familiar was not always the case. On the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Negro History Week, President Gerald Ford acknowledged the call to turn the weeklong celebration into a full month. With Ford’s declaration, Black History Month was established in 1976. It is in the course of my lifetime, then, that this annual celebration of Black excellence has become the norm. It is in the course of my lifetime that schoolchildren have been taught regularly—if often only in February, alas—about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Charles Drew, Jackie Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.  

It is important that these individuals now border on the ubiquitous (in February) for they made remarkable contributions to this country’s history. But their exceptionalism can also be a curse: that the only people worth remembering are those who have done something extraordinary on the public stage. But what about the “minor” figures who did the work that allowed these individuals to shine? What about the other politicians, activists, scientists, athletes, writers and preachers who shaped the lives around them but who never achieved national acclaim? Or, more poignantly, what about those in the African American past who might have been able to change the world if their labor had been freely given, or if they had been legally allowed to learn how to read, or if they had been able to go to schools that were properly funded, or if they were raised from birth with the comfort of knowing they would receive a fair chance?  

In February we celebrate the most famous in our past for they are symbols of possibility in the Black community’s present. While celebrating them I also choose to acknowledge those whose names are lost to us. It is their honest, unrecognized labor and love that paved the way for the future we may yet realize. 

Jonathan Holloway

The Black Manifesto

Kendra D. Boyd 
Assistant professor, Department of History 

As a scholar of Black economic development, a historical moment I find meaningful is the 1969 National Black Economic Development Conference and the creation of the Black Manifesto. One weekend in late April 1969, more than 500 Black activists, organizers, clergy and businesspeople gathered in Detroit, Michigan, for the conference with the aim of discussing Black people’s economic situation in the U.S. and strategies for community development. On Saturday, April 26, James Forman, a prominent member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (an organization that grew out of the sit-ins protesting segregated lunch counters) presented the Black Manifesto. Without permission, Forman took the stage and proclaimed that “For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world.” The manifesto continued, calling for $500 million in reparations to African Americans for slavery. For the writers of the manifesto, overthrowing an oppressive system necessitated the redistribution of wealth and resources. They were not asking for a handout or charity. They were demanding reparations, “the making of amends for wrong or injury done.”  

The Black Manifesto made the term “reparations” a household word. The manifesto was revolutionary because it was not a request for financial assistance from whites; it demanded what was owed to African Americans and insisted that white America fully account for its past actions. It also drew more attention to the lasting effects of slavery and the continued economic exploitation of Blacks. The Black Manifesto reflected the attitude of many Black Power activists who wanted access to white money without the condition of whites directing and controlling how the money was used for Black uplift. The desire for self-determination and community control was a major aspect of the manifesto and a significant aspect of the Black Power era. Though African Americans did not receive the reparations called for in the Black Manifesto, it sparked discussions that still continue today, about the place of reparations in addressing the legacy of slavery and Black oppression in America.  

Kendra Boyd

The Legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer

Charles Menifield
Dean, School of Public Affairs and Administration

I was born in 1967, during the height of the civil rights movement in the countryside of Mound Bayou, Miss., a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. One of the persons that I came to be aware of during my primary and secondary education was Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer. 

Mrs. Hamer and I had a number of things in common. We are both from the Mississippi Delta. We both grew up on a farm. We both toiled in cotton fields (she as picker and I a chopper) under the same hot sun. We both toiled to improve the lives of Black residents in Mississippi. 

Despite these similarities, I chose to write about Mrs. Hamer because of her legacy and impact on African American youth in Mississippi. Mrs. Hamer received very little formal education as she left school at age 12 to work in the fields. Her life would take a major turn when she had surgery to remove a uterine tumor at age 44. During the procedure, the doctor took the liberty of removing her uterus without her permission. This act, to perpetuate the “Mississippi appendectomy,” no doubt facilitated her activities in the civil rights movement. The catalyst for her activity was a meeting held by James Forman and James Bevel of the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Leadership Conference (SCLC). She later became a SNCC organizer, leading efforts to register Black voters in Indianola, Miss. Despite resistance from local police departments, she continued her efforts in Mississippi and South Carolina. She eventually settled in Ruleville, Miss., and cofounded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. By 1968, her vision for racial parity had become a reality as she was a member of Mississippi’s first integrated Democratic delegation. Although she died in 1977, at the age of 59, many today continue to benefit from her legacy. 

Menifield Charles
Jonathan Holloway
Kendra Boyd
Menifield Charles

In February we celebrate the most famous in our past for they are symbols of possibility in the Black community’s present. While celebrating them I also choose to acknowledge those whose names are lost to us. It is their honest, unrecognized labor and love that paved the way for the future we may yet realize.

Jonathan Holloway


Sidney Poitier’s Overlooked Moment From the March on Washington 

Saladin Ambar 
Professor of political science 
Scholar at the Eagleton Center on the American Governor 
Rutgers-New Brunswick

This Black History Month will undoubtedly feature many remembrances of the 1963 March on Washington. But there is moment from that day, one that occurred after the march, that is worthy of greater attention than it has received. And that is the so-called Hollywood Roundtable that was held by the United States Information Agency after the march, featuring such luminaries as James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, the director Joseph Mankiewicz and Sidney Poitier, whom we lost on Jan. 6.  

It was the passing of Poitier, a brilliant actor and beloved figure, that prompted me to revisit the roundtable. I most recently studied it as part of a chapter in my next book, Stars and Shadows: The Politics of Interracial Friendship, because Baldwin and Brando were featured, and their friendship was an important part of the celebrity presence in Washington that day, a presence that brought additional attention to the march and the cause of racial justice. Because my focus was on Baldwin and Brando (who did not disappoint in “going off script” – with Brando calling for reparations for Native Americans and Baldwin deconstructing the pathos of white supremacy), I did not pay particular attention to Poitier. 

What I learned was what so many have written about since Poitier’s death: his quiet dignified presence; his unflappable demeanor and beautiful eloquence. But the video from the roundtable, fortunately available on YouTube, also captures the deep convictions of Poitier, along with his fire, and deep sense of purpose. His two points of emphasis from the questions posed to him drew important responses. “The urgency that was evident today has been bubbling in me…out of a necessity to survive,” he told the moderator, David Shoenbrun. The second statement was: “I am forced to participate because it is my conviction that my country has to successfully negotiate the Negro question…we must as a country successfully negotiate that…to become eligible for participation in the future… The stamina and texture to endeavor to solve the Negro question will exemplify for me the kind of interest the country as a whole has in doing the things that are necessary to be entitled to a future.”  

It is that interconnected phenomenon that remains with us: the personal struggle for Black people living in a racist society to resist oppression out of necessity, along with America’s need to resolve its endemic quality of white supremacy, that undoubtedly shapes our future. While Poitier’s time in the segment was short, he got much in during those brief utterances – a message to us all that a life well lived, including a life within the larger struggle for racial justice – needn’t be the loudest or the most visible. Sometimes wisdom and the power of a message is its own megaphone. Such was the life of Sidney Poitier, exemplified in this simple, and overlooked moment from the March on Washington. 

Saladin Ambar

Protecting the Right to Vote

Teri E. Lassiter
Assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion 
School of Public Health 

Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences

When reflecting on significant moments in Black history, I feel that the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 is a turning point because it expanded the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution by banning racial discrimination in voting practices.  

The 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteed the right to vote to citizens of the United States and granted African Americans the right to citizenship, but not the right to vote. The 15th Amendment, adopted two years later, granted “(t)he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” however some states devised ways to turn African Americans away from the polls. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited the use of literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation to exclude African Americans from voting; since its passage voter registration and turnout has increased among African Americans. 

The Voting Rights Act has been challenged in recent years, with 19 states passing laws restricting access to voting; in 2021 alone, there were over 400 bills introduced in 49 states that would restrict voting access. These challenges to the act have alarming implications for our country and can undermine the faith and trust in our constitutional democracy. It is crucial that the Freedom to Vote Act, which would ensure national standards for voting access – protecting each person’s freedom to vote – and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would prevent discriminatory practices in voting from being implemented – ensuring that Black and brown people, LGBTQ+ people, the formerly incarcerated, and those with disabilities are not disenfranchised – be passed during the current legislative session.  

This is not a time for anyone in this country to lose their right to vote.

Terri Lassiter

Remembering Fannie Lou Hamer

Naomi R Williams
Assistant professor
School of Management and Labor Relations
Rutgers-New Brunswick

Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper and freedom fighter who advocated for voting rights that had been denied Black people. She was cofounder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and helped to organize the 1964 Freedom Summer that brought activists from around the country to support voter registration drives. Singing was part of her movement-building strategy, and she recorded Songs My Mother Taught Me

In 1962, Hamer and other volunteers went to the Indianola, Miss. courthouse to register to vote. They were denied access. When she returned home, she was fired and the family moved to Ruleville, where Hamer continued her efforts to exercise her right to vote and to help other Black people vote. Despite all the attacks – fined, jailed, beaten, fired from work – she never stopped. Her speech in front of the Credentials Committee at the 1964 Democratic National Convention is one of the most powerful indictments of white supremacy I’ve seen. 

For me, a remarkably meaningful moment comes after the convention. After years of organizing and risking their lives to show how the state Democratic Party’s all-white primaries violated the rights of Black Mississippians, Hamer’s group did not get the outcome they wanted. But they continued to organize and fight for voting rights. The dedication and commitment to justice that Hamer showed, at great personal cost to herself and her family, should inspire us all. She continued fighting against racism and exclusion in the U.S. political system, and in 1969 she expanded the work she was doing to support Black independent farmers by launching the Freedom Farm Cooperative on 640 acres of land in Sunflower County, Mississippi.  

Fannie Lou Hamer should be remembered for her bravery, organizing and mobilizing skills, and her unwavering commitment to racial and economic justice. 

Naomi Williams
Saladin Ambar
Terri Lassiter
Naomi Williams