What are the Origins of American Black History Month and Who are Some of the Most Prominent African American Figures?

It wasn’t until 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially dedicated February as Black History Month in the United States.

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It wasn’t until 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially dedicated February as Black History Month in the United States.

Every February, Americans celebrate Black History Month to honour and respect African Americans who have contributed to the nation. But what is the history behind it? 

Black History Month began in 1926 when historian and Harvard educated Carter G Woodson wanted to set right how black people were portrayed as the education system didn’t give much insight into the true accomplishments of African Americans. He founded what is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and created the ‘Negro History Week’. He chose the second week to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and 16th US president Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Mayors and university presidents across America celebrated black culture and history. During the late 1960s, it became so popular that people were celebrating it beyond one week. But it wasn’t until 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially dedicated February as Black History Month in the United States.

America’s horrific history of black people being sold into slavery will never be forgotten and the constant racism, on-going police brutality against black people whose basic civil rights are infringed upon, and acts of violence from white supremacists all serve as a harsh reminder today.  But there have been many courageous individuals who have made it their life’s works to fight against oppression. These include Muslim and non-Muslims, past and present.

Here, therefore, is a short list but not an exhaustive one, detailing some influential African Americans who should be remembered and celebrated.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was an American hero, activist, civil rights movement leader, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, and wordsmith. His most popular speech is his 1963 “I Have a Dream” address — that today still creates hope. His powerful rhetoric included the lines: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

During the Civil Rights Movement in 1955, after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, Martin helped to organise a boycott of the city’s buses. His policy of non-violent protest was an important part of his campaign. At the age of thirty-five in 1964, he was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. When notified of his selection, he announced that he would turn over the prize money of $54,123 to the civil rights movement. He was assassinated on April 4th, 1968.

Malcolm X

Born as Malcolm Little, he later became a minister and civil rights movement leader who supported Black Nationalism. His father championed civil rights that resulted in death threats from the white supremacist group, Black Legion, and it is believed they were responsible for his father’s death. His mother was institutionalised in 1939, so he was separated from his siblings who were placed in different foster homes and orphanages. He became embroiled in a life of crime and was sent to prison in 1946 for 10 years. While in prison his brother, Reginald, urged him to join the Nation Of Islam, headed by Elijah Muhammad, which aimed to empower African Americans.

Malcolm communicated with Elijah during his time in prison. When he was paroled on 7th August 1952, he changed his name to Malcolm ‘X.’ The X represents the rejection of his slave name. Malcolm X was appointed as a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He raised the NOI’s profile but in March 1964 he publically left the organisation. He formed his own movement, the Muslim Mosque Inc., on 12th March 1964 and performed Hajj in Mecca during April 1964. His preaching became more peaceful and he changed his name once again to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three men who were also members of the Nation of Islam.

Mohammed Ali

The world-renowned boxer and legend previously known as Cassius Clay, converted to Islam in 1964 when he was just 22 years old. He first won the world heavyweight championship on February 25, 1964, and went on to win it two more times. 

He opposed the 1967 Vietnam War and refused to serve in the US army. He stated that “I will not disgrace my religion, my people, or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality.”  He was apart of the civil rights movement, which was a campaign by African Americans to end institutionalized racial discrimination and racial segregation in the US.  He was an anti-war activist and committed much of his life to global charity work. Despite suffering from Parkinson’s disease he carried on with his life’s work until he died at the age of 74 on June 3, 2016.

Rosa Parks

On 1st December 1955 after work, Rosa boarded the bus home and took a seat. During that time in Montgomery segregation was in full force with seats at the front of buses reserved for white passengers only. Rosa refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus. She was then arrested and refused to pay a fine. An organisation called the Montgomery Improvement Association arranged a boycott of the city’s buses. After 381 days of boycotting the buses, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s racial segregation laws were ‘unconstitutional’ – meaning they weren’t valid and should not be recognised.

She also co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. Rosa died of natural causes on 24 October 2005 at the age of 92. Parks previously stated that “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

Claudette Colvin

Claudette Colvin also refused to give up her bus seat on March 2, 1955, to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama nine months before Rosa Parks. She stated that she had paid her fare and it was her constitutional right, but was still unjustly arrested by two police officers. Colvin later became the main witness in the federal lawsuit Browder v. Gayle, which ended segregation on public transportation in Alabama. There are many more examples of women that contributed to the civil rights movement here.

Jane Bolin

Jane Bolin was Americas’ first female black judge in 1939. She was also the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School, and served on New York’s Family Court for 37 years. She worked on domestic cases and cases to stop probation officers from getting assignments based on their skin colour.  She died aged 98 in 2007.

Keith Ellison

Keith Ellison is currently a top public prosecutor in Minnesota, where George Floyd was killed. As the Attorney General, he is leading the investigation against the police officers and has vowed to “hold everyone accountable.” In 2006, he was the first African Muslim American to be elected to statewide office in Minnesota. He took his oath on the Quran regardless of criticism against doing so.

Ellison converted to Islam as a 19-year-old college student when he experienced police brutality first hand and in 1989, he formed a group called the Coalition for Police Accountability, which published a newsletter that detailed police brutality.

Ibtihaj Muhammad

In the 2016 Olympics, Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim-American to wear a hijab in an Olympic competition and won a bronze medal. She is a 5-time Senior World medalist and World Champion. In 2014, Ibtihaj launched her own clothing company, Louella, which aims to bring modest, fashionable, and affordable clothing to the United States market.

In 2017, Mattel announced their first hijabi Barbie, modelled in Ibtihaj’s likeness, as part of Barbie’s “Shero” line of dolls. In September of 2019, Ibtihaj released her first children’s book The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family, which instantly became a New York Times Best Seller. She remains a modern-day Muslim icon empowering Muslim women and girls worldwide.

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi

In 2013, three black female organisers created a Black-centered political will and movement building project called #BlackLivesMatter. It was in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman. As #BlackLivesMatter developed throughout 2013 and 2014, they utilized it as a platform and organizing tool which helped other groups, organizations, and individuals.

Since its inception, 26 million people have participated in Black Lives Matter protests in the weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May 2020, which means it’s one of the largest movements in U.S. history.