Skip to main content

Black History: Our Living History

Posted by Michael Watts, Director of the Office of Civil Rights, USDA Forest Service in Equity Initiatives
Feb 12, 2021
U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff attend a televised ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial
Vice President Kamala D. Harris and First Gentleman Doug Emhoff.

"We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome—that we will rise up. This is American aspiration." -Kamala D. Harris

On the cold January night following her swearing in earlier in the day as the first woman vice president of the United States, Kamala D. Harris and First Gentleman Doug Emhoff stood before the Lincoln Memorial. The stoic face of Lincoln looked eastward, past some of the signposts of our history in the form of war memorials and monuments, all the way to the U.S. Capitol. The monuments before both Lincoln and Harris are symbols of American history; but this January, history was unfolding at Lincoln’s feet.

In one day, Vice President Harris broke barriers for Black and South Asian people, for women and for the children of immigrants. As a Black woman, Harris would not have been able to hold office while Lincoln was living. Not until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act would she have even been able to vote in many parts of our country.

In the words of Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit song, “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come.” Our agency is changing too. We embody our code and commitments (PDF, 4 MB) by doing the right things while building trust with each other and the people and communities we serve. When we live by our values, we show each other and the world that we mean it when we say that diversity and interdependence are at the core of who we are. And when others see the diversity of people who wear the same Forest Service uniform, they see a reflection of our respect for diversity in all things.

On Jan. 20th, our country witnessed the glass ceiling break. Pioneers such as Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan realized that this day would come. The significance of Vice President Harris assuming the second highest office in the federal government reminds us that progress is happening all around us. If we focus on our values, purpose and relationships, our agency can become a model for others.

Historically, February is set aside to celebrate and focus on Black history, starting with slavery. Beyond the Capitol building and across the Atlantic sits West Africa, and prior to colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, various scholars have noted how the ancestors of many Black Americans were African royalty and nobility from West and Central Africa. Both the African continent and the diaspora have been producing inventors, innovators and world changers throughout history and continue to do so today.

This year, history has played out in real time. There is a renewed focus on civil and voting rights at all levels of society, including government. Overcoming systemic injustice is at the forefront of the American conversation, spurred on by Black leaders and allies. While there is still much work to do, Jan. 20th marked a major checkpoint in the belief that “we shall overcome.”

We have momentum. Racial equality is one of the top four immediate priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration. As President Biden said in his Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, “Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths.”

This Black History Month, where will we as an organization focus? My aim is that Black history is not only something we recognize and celebrate each February, but also presents a living history that informs our work every day.

Michael Watts, Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Forest Service
Michael Watts, Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the Forest Service.
Category/Topic: Equity Initiatives