By JENNIFER GAVIN
Joining Librarian of Congress James H. Billington at the Feb. 3 launch of the Library’s NAACP online exhibition were NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous, AARP Vice President Edna Kane-Williams, and U.S. Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) The occasion also marked the start of the Library’s celebration of African American History Month.
Not only does the Library hold the largest collection of NAACP papers, it is “the most-researched and the most-used collection,” said Jealous, a fifth-generation NAACP member who delivered the keynote address.
Members of the NAACP “tell history a little differently. … It’s not something that’s done and over with, monumental and dead,” Jealous said. “It’s triumphant, and ongoing. … It doesn’t just empower you to understand why they did what they did when they did it, but what you need to do when you’re confronted with something that must be overcome, and how you must do it.”
Over a century of leadership against discrimination and segregation in the military and in schools, in stamping out lynching and striking Jim Crow laws from the nation’s books, the NAACP’s story exists to inspire new action, he said.
He called the Library of Congress “the people’s library,” noting that it has materials from some nations that denizens of those countries would not be allowed to view at home.
Jealous told the story of his confrontation at age six with a school librarian over a lack of books about African Americans. Although she was dumbfounded by his complaint, he said, that librarian is now “a leading expert on diversity in children’s books.”
Clyburn told of attending a Black History Month event several years ago where he overheard trainees debating which of them was studying for the most important job. One was studying plumbing; another, automobile mechanics; and a third, food service.
Clyburn told them that any of them might have the most important job if they encountered another person—even a doctor, lawyer or other professional—who needed what they offered.
“We all need each other, and no one of us is any more important,” he said. “Our importance in the overall scheme of things just depends on what time it is.”
Some of the NAACP’s early founders—and many of its longtime supporters even in recent years—have been from the Jewish community, Wasserman Schultz noted. “The Jewish tradition teaches us it is incumbent on us to speak out against injustice,” she said. America is at its finest when people of all backgrounds “embrace their differences and stand up together.”
Cohen, who represents the city of Memphis, urged his listeners to visit there. Although the city was the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Cohen said he believes that today it is an example of “how far we’ve come.”
Opening the ceremony was the Bell Multicultural High School Color Guard. Saundra Smith, a specialist in the Library’s Human Resource Services office, sang the national anthem and an a cappella version of “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Closing the ceremony was Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” sung by the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet, featuring Library Instructional Systems Specialist Virginia Carr.
Jennifer Gavin is the senior public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.