February 24, 2003
Senator Cantwell's Statement Honoring Black History Month
"Mr. President, I rise today in honor of Black History Month. On February 1, 1960, four brave freshmen from North Caroline A&T conducted the first major sit-in protest of the civil rights movement. The "Greensboro Four," as they came to be known, acted on the American principle that all people are created equal. Although the United States was founded on that premise, it is too often denied.
We know that when one person breaks a barrier to equality, the potential opportunities for all Americans are redefined. That is why every February, we teach our students about pioneers like Ralph J. Bunche, the first African-American to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the major leagues. We must also remember, however, that individual success does not assure universal progress.
My state is proud that the University of Washington accepted its first black student in 1874. This was an important step towards equal access to education. At the time, the Puget Sound Dispatch declared, "Every child of African descent born in this country has the same right of access to our public schools as the children of the most privileged of Caucasian blood. No teacher or school officer has any more legal right to exclude one than the other." However, it took seventy more years for the Supreme Court to endorse this standard. Now we face racial inequities in education and the resegregation of our schools. In fact, this year a study found that public schools have been undergoing a "process of continuous resegregation" since the early 1990s. We must ensure that our legal ideal of equality is a reality for every American.
Hiram Revels, the son of former slaves, became the first African-American Senator in 1870. He overcame many obstacles and forever changed this institution. Because of leaders like Senator Revels, this is the most diverse Senate in the history of the United States. And yet at the same time, there is not a single African-American Senator serving in this body.
The American people want leaders who represent their values, ideas and life experiences. For this reason, I am optimistic that as our country moves forward, we will continue to select leaders who value diversity and the representation of all people. It is the right way to protect our founding principle of equality, and the best way to ensure our prosperity. As Dr. Martin Luther King explained in his letter from Birmingham jail, we are bound by a "single garment of destiny where whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." Our world is even more intertwined today. Like the great Americans before us, from Thomas Jefferson to the "Greensboro Four," this month we reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental premise that all people are created equal, and must be treated equally."