Celebrating African American Contributions to U.S. Life

Published mar. 04, 2020

In celebration of Black History Month 2020, JFF recognized African Americans’ contributions to America’s prosperity despite their experiences of inequity, poverty, and injustice.

Through self-determination, collective work, and responsibility, African Americans have fought for inclusive education, governance, civil liberties, sovereignty (freedom) of expression, and economic mobility. Unfortunately, African Americans are still struggling to achieve these rights, but with the foundation laid by pioneers, these rights are attainable.

Here’s a look at a few of the pioneers and landmark events JFF employees talked and learned more about during Black History Month.

Educator and Activist

Septima Clark (1898–1987). An educator and civil rights activist, Septima Clark developed the literacy and citizenship workshops that played an important role in the drive for voting rights and civil rights for African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. She is most famous for establishing “Citizenship Schools” to teach adults throughout the Deep South to read, in hopes of carrying on a tradition. While the project served to increase literacy, it also served as a means of empowering black communities. She was not only teaching literacy, but also citizenship rights. Her teaching approach was very specific in making sure her students felt invested in what they were learning, so she connected the politics of the movement to the needs of the people.

Pioneering Lawmaker

Edward W. Brooke (1919–2015). On November 8, 1966, Edward W. Brooke became the first African American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate. He represented Massachusetts in the Senate for two terms, from 1967 to 1979. Among other accomplishments, Brooke coauthored the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibits housing discrimination.

Writer at an Intersection of Identities

James Baldwin (1924–1987). An essayist, playwright, and novelist, James Baldwin was regarded as one of the foremost intellectual thinkers of the 20th century for voicing his concerns around identity, creativity, and freedom. As an openly gay man during a time when homosexuality was taboo, Baldwin explored the intersections of his identities in a number of works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room. In his writing, Baldwin considered what it meant to be human and explored our common struggles, victories, and defeats during one of the most turbulent times for blacks in America.

Landmark Crusade

The Poor People’s Campaign (1968). Launched by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign marked an important transition in U.S. history. While drawing attention to poverty, the multiethnic crusade also helped set the stage for future social justice movements. The Poor People’s campaign elevated the voices of America’s poor and ensured that the crisis of poverty in this country became visible.