The Personal Meaning of Black History Month

03/01/2011 10:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Coretta Scott King said, every generation earns and renews its struggle for freedom. At the conclusion of Black History Month, I have reflected on the meaning of her words and how they guide the ongoing movement for greater opportunity and justice for our community. For each generation of us, this month has a special, very personal meaning.

For many of our elders, the fact that we recognize Black History Month has enormous significance. Not many years ago, African Americans couldn't eat at lunch counters, use water fountains, or safely mix in public with whites in many parts of the country. Schools remain segregated if not by force of law, then in fact. Schoolchildren weren't taught about Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes or W.E.B. DuBois. The designation of Black History Month is our democracy's recognition that this long, unjust period of failing to treat African Americans as full and equal citizens is over, and that our history is, in a literal way, American history.

I grew up as the tide began to turn in the struggle for civil rights. I was in a stroller as my parents marched in the streets, and my elementary school class was the second to be integrated in the history of the City of Berkeley's public schools. For my generation, the doors that had been closed and off-limits for so long began to crack open, and we began to see the leading edge of the generation of "firsts." The first African-Americans to be appointed as federal judges in many federal districts; the first African Americans to be elected to the Senate or as a Governor after Reconstruction; and the first black astronaut to travel to outer space.

With the election of President Obama, and the rise of a new generation of African-American elected officials, some say that the relevance of Black History Month has waned. But it hasn't, for the movement and meaning underlying Black History Month for this generation has shifted once again.

This generation's challenge is to transform the opportunity to make change into a reality of social and economic justice. One in five African Americans lack health care, which makes the struggle for affordable health care for every American especially relevant for our community. The national economic recession has hit our community especially hard; unemployment in our community neared 17% last year, a 25-year high and worse than the national average of 10% for all Americans. Creating new living-wage jobs is much more than an economic issue; it is a civil rights issue. And to ensure our community enjoys the jobs of the new century, we must fight for a decent education for all of our children. That means holding parents and children accountable for being in school and holding schools and government accountable for helping children learn. It means turning around the grim statistic that nearly 40 percent of our children fail to graduate school on-time.

Black history is about so much more than just one month. It signifies a commitment that each generation makes to pave the way for the next.