Black Alabamians touch every aspect of American life

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A truly great American and native Alabamian, Coretta Scott King, passed away recently. King’s death comes during Black History Month, and her passing offers a unique and powerful opportunity to reflect on the many influential African-Americans from Alabama who have helped define who we are as a state and country.

Events that started in Alabama, such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and “Bloody Sunday,” the violence that broke out on the Edmund Pettis bridge at the beginning of the march from Selma to Montgomery, changed the nation and the world.

Several of the heroes who challenged segregation laws and the injustice that denied blacks the use of public accommodations and the right to vote are from Alabama. The simple dignity and strength of purpose that Rosa Parks exhibited was the spark that ignited the civil rights movement. Her place in history was so important that she was the first black woman to lie-in-state in the nation’s Capitol after her passing. To be so honored places her on the same level as presidents and other great leaders. All Alabamians can take pride in her accomplishments and the person she was.

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Alaba-mian Ralph Abernathy, the passionate black clergyman and central figure of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, played an integral part in the civil rights movement. His dedication to non-violent action in the face of injustice was as powerful as any who worked in the movement.

Yet Alabama’s famous African Americans do not begin and end at the civil rights movement. Leaders in many different facets of life were either born in or resided in our state, and did their best work here.

For example, Alabama was home to the famous “Tuskegee Airmen,” which trained over 1,000 black pilots at the Tuskegee Army Air Field, which is now Tuskegee University.

During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 missions in their P-51 Mustang fighters, and did not lose a single bomber they escorted to enemy aircraft. The Airmen also destroyed more than 260 enemy aircraft while garnering 850 medals. In their excellence and dedication, the Tuskegee Airmen fought for desegregation at home, tearing down racial barriers, and set the prelude to our armed forces integrating in 1948. It is important to understand that the military was one of the first American institutions to fully integrate, and the Airmen certainly gave President Truman the example to cite when ordering the segregation of the military.

Leaders of the academic world and pioneers in the fields of science and technology have called Alabama home.

Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881 and became recognized as the nation’s foremost black educator.

Others such as George Washington Carver, a pioneer in agricultural engineering, Mae Jemison, the first African American astronaut, and Dr. David Satcher, the first African American Surgeon General, all have ties to Alabama.

Alabama’s African Americans have made incredible contributions to athletics as well.

Jesse Owens, who defied Hitler by participating and winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, showed our nation and the world the dignity and dedication of African Americans. Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis battled segregation at home while fighting in the ring. Baseball greats Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, and the all-time homerun leader Hank Aaron are all from our state.

Several musical greats come from Alabama. W.C. Handy, the great composer and one of founders of jazz, hails from our state. Nat “King” Cole and Lionel Hampton, two of the best known musicians during the middle part of the last century, called Alabama home. And the incomparable Dinah Washington was born and raised right here in Alabama.

It is important to honor and celebrate Alabama’s leaders in the civil rights movement. And it is just as important to acknowledge the black Alabamians that were leaders in so many other fields and endeavors. Our state can take pride in their accomplishments not only during black history month, but also throughout the year.