February is Black History Month. A time to reflect on the contributions African-Americans have made in shaping our nation, culture and especially our civil rights policies. A time to remember the women and men who spent their personal and professional lives working to make things better, not only for themselves, but also for their families, their communities and our nation; and not just for their generation, but also for the millions who came after them. People like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Ida B. Wells, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. I’m glad we set aside time to reflect on our shared history; something I think we generally undervalue, even take for granted. Though we pride ourselves on being a nation of individuals, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and captains of industry, our accomplishments stand on a foundation others have laid. Our liberty, rights and way of life, here in the twenty-first century, exist because of the sacrifices others made in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, going as far back as the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Yet even as this new republic was born millions of slaves living within its borders were denied liberty. Freedom for all would not come for another century and basic equality for yet another beyond the first. And so each generation had to take up the cause of freedom and equality, building upon the work done by those who came before them, each moving forward the cause of liberty one step at a time. And so the struggle continues to this day. Which is why valuing our history, reflecting on how we came to be the nation and people we are today and honoring those who sacrificed personally and professionally is so important.
These individuals – too numerous to name here, many already long forgotten – who fought first for liberty and then struggled for full equality through the long decades following the Civil War, they made possible the freedom and rights we share today. We are the recipients of a great gift that would not exist without the contributions of those who came before us. Our President, Barak Obama, stands on the shoulders of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Ida B. Wells, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King; as do we all. The fabric of our shared history was woven by the people who came before us. We would not be the nation we are and we would not have the freedom and rights we enjoy, but for the women and men who made freedom and civil rights their life long passion. Without the contributions made by the people we remember during Black History Month the liberty we enjoy today would not exist.
But our history is only part of the story, the chapters that have already been written. We too have a part to play. We too must take up this struggle if liberty is to endure, if the generations who come after us are to have a better world in which to live and work. Thomas Paine, in his treaties, Rights of Man, makes our responsibility in this matter clear.
Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. The parliament or the people of 1688, or of any other period, had no more right to dispose of the people of the present day, or to bind or to control them in any shape whatever, than the parliament or the people of the present day have to dispose of, bind or control those who are to live a hundred or a thousand years hence. Every generation is and must be competent to all the purposes which its occasions require.
Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have less rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured. His natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights.
To the same degree that we have been the beneficiaries – nationally, professionally and personally – of the many who came before us, who struggled and sacrificed to make the world a better place, we too must endeavor in this good and noble cause. We must give of ourselves, so that those who follow after us will find that we have made the world, our country, our companies and our communities more civil, just, and attainable. Liberty and equality for all was the rallying cry of the revolution and though today we regard these as our rights, as an end in themselves, perhaps they are better understood as a means to an end. Our Pledge of Allegiance includes the phrase, “one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” – but how much richer and meaningful these statements become when they are reversed: With liberty and justice for all, we are one nation indivisible.