Public Papers

Remarks on the Observance of African-American History Month


Welcome to the White House, and thank you all very, very much for coming. The finalists and the semifinalists of the McDonald's Black History Makers of Tomorrow are here, and I want to salute them right off hand, over here. Welcome to the White House. And next let me single out, as a fan, the representatives of the Negro League Baseball Players Association, over here, very famous, all. Welcome.

And to Mr. Justice White and members of our Cabinet, Chairman Powell, and others, let me just say that I am honored to join you in celebrating African-American History Month. I'm especially proud to introduce two special guests that we're going to hear from in a minute, Maya Angelou and Shirley Caesar, right here.

Dr. Angelou, an author, editor, dancer, producer, now the Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, she built a career exploring the promise of freedom. And her book ``I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'' has thrilled readers and students by making the case for decency and courage and hope and determination.

And our other guest is, of course, one of America's greatest gospel singers. Grammy award-winning -- brought some family along to celebrate, I see, but never mind, that's fine even in the White House, Shirley -- Grammy award-winning Shirley Caesar has long lifted her voice to sing the bittersweet song of gospel. And her message, like the words of the well-known anthem, is ``full of the faith that the dark past has taught us and the hope that the present has brought us.''

African-American History Month lets us reflect on our past, its triumphs and its tragedies, and it bids us to celebrate and to remember. But while we may use this time to stop and take stock of race relations, we must guard against the trap of viewing black experience solely against the backdrop of race.

Too often the book of black history is defined only by the chapters, important though they may be, of slavery and emancipation and civil rights. African-American History Month puts on view a whole world of African-American experience, experience that has often pushed back the boundaries of race relations, but that is not always and only defined by them.

This month explores another chapter, Africans' roots explore new worlds. It celebrates the black pathfinders and trailblazers who pushed back the bounds of the unknown and expanded the boundaries of knowledge. Explorers like Pedro Nino, who followed the stars to a new world; pioneers like Guion Bluford, Jr., who parted the stars toward the unknown; or Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, who braved the edge of creation at the newfound North Pole.

And then, of course, we salute other black pioneers, pioneers whose compass was courage, whose map, moral vision. These are people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who realized ``that the time is always ripe to do right.'' And we think of Alex Haley; a writer described him as a man who ``turned loss into pride, history into heritage, and helped make black America a family again.'' I'll never forget ``Roots.'' You'll never forget Alex Haley. And then we think of A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader who fought to desegregate the military. Jesse Owens, whose triumph humiliated Hitler, before the entire world, I might add. George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, Dr. Charles Drew, Benjamin Banneker, the legacy of the Tuskegee airmen. We think of Mr. Justice, right here in the front row, our dear friend Clarence Thomas. And we think, of course, of Colin Powell.

These pioneers and many like them peered over the rim of the possible and dared to walk where others had only dreamed. We, too, stand at the edge of a frontier, the frontier of brotherhood, the frontier of a better tomorrow. It's up to us to see beyond old divides and set our sights on new common ground. And as we continue our efforts to create prosperity for all, we must also create new trust, a new tolerance, a new opportunity. And we will.

There is not, and there will never be, a place in America for hatred, for prejudice, for intolerance. And this is not America; this is not us. And let's push back the small crowds who preach hatred. Let's create room for the American dream, for a land where all God's children sing in the joyous songs of freedom. And so, that's our challenge. And I hope it will form the next chapter of our national history.

And so, thank you all very, very much. And now for what we all came to hear. First, I've introduced you to Dr. Angelou, but I believe, Shirley, you are the lead-off hitter. And these guys would know exactly what that means. So come on up, Shirley Caesar.

Note: The President spoke at 5 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.