Black History Month (also known as African-American History Month) initially began in 1926 as “Negro History Week,” an event during the second week of February designed to encourage the study and teaching of American black history in public schools. By the 1960s, political and cultural turbulence surrounding historic events such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, as well as the broader Civil Rights Movement, emphasized the importance of teaching black history, prompting a trend of expanding the celebration at colleges and in local governments. February officially became Black History Month during the 1976 Bicentennial, continuing the education of Americans on black history, culture, and heroes. One of these heroes, civil rights leader John Lewis, currently serves as the representative of Georgia’s 5th district.
Lewis has been a passionate vanguard of progressive social equality since the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. At 21, he was beaten by angry mobs for participating in the Freedom Rides and protesting Jim Crow Segregation. At 23, he helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized student activism, and became one of the nationally recognized Big Six leaders of the Movement. He spoke at the March on Washington and led more than 600 protestors in the 1965 Selma march. He advocated for voter education and civic service as the Director of the Voter Education Project and ACTION, the federal volunteer agency, before joining the United States House of Representatives in 1986.
As Chief Deputy Whips, John Lewis and Chet Edwards coordinated Democratic responses to legislation together and became good friends. Edwards credits the Civil Rights Movement and the continued injustice black Americans faced, decades after the supposed end of Jim Crow segregation, as his motivation for entering politics. While in office, he frequently relayed anecdotes from Congressman Lewis’s experiences in the Movement to supporters and detractors alike. In 2003, Edwards took a “civil rights pilgrimage” to Selma that gave him tremendous respect for the courage of those fighting for equal rights. In 2012, Edwards cited Lewis as the official he most admired and a personal inspiration: “[John Lewis’s experience is]one of the reasons why I endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, something I had never done before. I never dreamed in my lifetime we would elect an African-American President. I never would have forgiven myself if I had just sat on the sidelines.”
Every year, the President of the United States issues a proclamation for National Black History Month to recognize black Americans’ contributions to American culture. President Obama’s 2015 proclamation began by saying, “For generations, the story of American progress has been shaped by the inextinguishable beliefs that change is always possible and a brighter future lies ahead.” As January draws to a close and Black History Month begins, remember John Lewis’s quest for change, his legacy as an American hero, and the bright future ahead.