The leader of the trade association of Black newspapers told a virtual audience on Feb. 1 that African Americans must “push forward” in the struggle for civil and voting rights and the Black Press will assist them by chronicling their efforts.
Dr. Benjamin Chavis, president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), served as the keynote speaker for the DC Black History Celebration Committee Virtual Black History Month Kickoff.
He repeated the editorial call of the first Black-owned newspaper in the U.S., Freedom’s Journal, founded March 16, 1827, by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm.
“We wish to plead our own cause, too long others have spoken for us,” Chavis said, quoting a line of the editorial Cornish and Russwurm published.
“It was important what they said because while there may have been people who were our allies and sympathetic to our cause, their information about us may not have been accurate and not as forceful as it should be,” he said.
District historian Chuck Hicks has organized the DC Black History celebration for many years. In addition to Chavis’ speech, poet Marvin Bowser performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a poem and The Black Workers Center Chorus sang the familiar song.
Former D.C. Council member Frank Smith talked about the latest developments with the African American Civil War Memorial which he manages while D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) updated the audience on the latest news regarding D.C. statehood.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) spoke about honoring the history of Black parents who sought to desegregate the District’s school system in the 1940s and 1950s and in a video message, Michael Curtis, the deputy head of the European Union delegation to the U.S., delivered remarks praising the committee and its efforts.
Hicks honored Black worker’s rights advocate Luci Murphy and social justice photographer and documentary producer Phil Portlock for their years of work and activism. Ward 8 political and civic activist Aaron Holmes served as the moderator and the host of the event.
Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes introduced Chavis to the audience.
Chavis noted how Black newspapers have been in existence for 195 years. He said the Black Press’s origins occurred in concert with other African-American institutions.
“Along with the Black Press we have the Black church, the Black family, Black colleges, Black civil rights organizations and progressive movements that have carried our people,” he said. “We have made a lot of progress as a people in 195 years. The Black Press has continued to advocate and amplify the cause of Black America.”
However, Chavis warned the audience of being complacent in the face of right-wing resistance.
“We must not allow the forces of oppression and reactionary policies to hold us back,” he said. “We must push forward.”
He said voter suppression exists in states including Texas, Georgia, Florida and even Virginia, “which is right across the river.”
“Things are slipping backward in Virginia,” Chavis said.
He called for the District to become the 51st state and said if city residents had two senators “the voting rights bills and the George Floyd bill would have become law.” Chavis said District residents, however, need to vote in higher percentages in their elections and encouraged a massive voter turnout in the November general election.
“They are saying that we are going to lose the House and the Senate in November because that is the historic trend,” he said. “I don’t believe that. What happens in 2022 affects what could happen in 2024. We cannot get sidetracked about issues such as critical race theory. We must turn out and vote in 2022. What is our plan?”
Chavis observed that while celebrating Black History Month “is a good thing, we have to remember that the Black Press celebrates Black history every week and every day.”