As a lifelong Union County resident, I have always appreciated how we celebrate our unique backgrounds, cultures and neighborhoods in many different ways, but we also come together as one community, working towards a brighter future.
That’s the perspective from which I see Black History Month. Each February, America celebrates the contributions of African-Americans to our nation’s history. In doing so we uncover new truths about the journey we all share, and new promises for the next generation.
This year Union County begins a new tradition. We are celebrating Black History Month with the first annual Chester Holmes Humanitarian Award, named in honor of the late Freeholder, Rahway Councilman, police officer, community volunteer and member of the Army National Guard, for whom serving the common good was a lifelong calling.
Mr. Holmes’s military service is especially relevant to the theme of Black History Month this year, which is “The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington.”
Military service was key part of the Emancipation Proclamation, though freeing slaves is by far its most well known provision.
When the Proclamation became effective in 1863, it declared the freedom of slaves in rebel states and urged them to join the nation’s workforce, specifically by joining the armed services.
By articulating the right of these newly liberated Americans to fight for their country, President Abraham Lincoln also recharged the legacy of African-American service in the Revolutionary War. He struck a spark that guided the way, slowly but inevitably, to the desegregation of military units in World War II.
Military desegregation soon became a powerful argument for the Civil Rights movement, which in 1963 culminated in the famous March on Washington and the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. for a shared future.
King was a man of peace, but there is no irony in recognizing that to this day, our armed services reflect and amplify his dream of progress toward equal rights for all Americans.
We can see that progress in new opportunities for women, as the recent lifting of sex-restricted combat roles will open new career paths and reinforce the rights articulated in the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
We can also see that progress in equal rights for all men and women, by the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, by a growing respect for marriage rights, and by the support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths embodied in the national anti-bullying movement.
This is the legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington. These twin events have proved so pivotal in African-American history, and they have rippled out to embrace all the richness of individual experience in modern society.
Our journey is far from over, but looking back on all that our nation has accomplished, Black History Month is truly a time to celebrate the freedom to strive, to achieve, and above all to contribute to a better, stronger American community.