‘Not Impossible Work’
Edwards Celebrates MLK Legacy, Diversity at NIH
Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards (D-MD) is too young to have marched in the Civil Rights Movement more than a half century ago, but she says she’s at the perfect age to acknowledge and appreciate the benefits gained in that era.
“I’m kind of in that in-between generation,” she said during her Mar. 8 keynote in Wilson Hall. “It wasn’t my generation that was out on the street demanding civil rights and social justice and voting rights, but I’m of an age where I can remember. I have vivid recollections of listening to Dr. Martin Luther King.”
In an MLK Day salute sponsored by NIH’s chapter of Blacks In Government and postponed from January due to snow, Edwards shared her thoughts on the civil rights leader, his legacy and the responsibilities of the world’s current citizens.
“If Dr. King were fast-forwarded, I think he would be asking our generation what our call to action is,” Edwards said. “We have the benefit of standing on very solid shoulders—some of those shoulders unnamed and unmentioned…What I want to know is, who gets to stand on our shoulders? Will our shoulders be broad enough and sturdy enough?”
Edwards talked about Mary Jenny Phillips, whose name probably isn’t in any history textbook. She’s one of the thousands of “unmentioned” ancestors who lent her shoulders and hard work to the effort. Born in 1900 on a farm in Yanceyville, N.C., Phillips—African-American and female—didn’t get to cast a ballot freely until she was well past 60 years old, when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law.
“Here in 2016, her granddaughter is the first black woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Maryland,” said Edwards, noting that her rescheduled remarks actually include a whole quarter-year’s worth of recognition—King Day in January, Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. “I think about my grandmother’s lifetime and we have come a long way. Do we have a lot of work to do? We absolutely do—in every single venue, in every single space. But my grandmother’s life tells me it’s not impossible work.”
Edwards pointed out the unique contributions NIH makes to the nation and the world.
“Thanks so much for all of the work that you do here at the NIH,” she said. “Thank you for your service. We here in Maryland have a large percentage of residents who are [active duty and retired] military, but what often goes untold is what’s done in our civilian services in the various agencies.
“But for the important research that goes on here at NIH,” she continued, “we would not be nearly where we are in terms of preventing disease, curing illness and treating patients. So, I really do value the work you do. We know it’s not easy to be in government service these days. We have a long recent history—30 years or so—of slashing and burning government work. You here at NIH know closer than anyone that the work you’re doing is important in people’s lives.”
Applauding the broad reach of the Civil Rights Movement in the nation in general and at individual U.S. institutions, Edwards identified the reason for the country’s momentous gains.
“We began to value diversity,” she said. “Not just because we wanted a whole bunch of different people around, but because we know that when we have diverse workplaces, when we have diverse government, when we have diverse corporations, [then] that contributes to better decision-making. Because you’ve got different ideas around the table. We know that has been true here at NIH.”
She reflected on how establishing NIH components to address minority health, health disparities and women’s health “changed the thinking about the way we need to look at scientific, medical research and whose voices need to be included at the table, whose presence needed to be in treatment protocols and how we needed to engage in different treatment protocols based on issues of race, ethnicity and class. These were new ideas that came to NIH because we started to identify diversity as a value.”
Edwards concluded by issuing a challenge. “We have a special responsibility for this upcoming generation,” she said. “We have an obligation to our children to do right by them.”
If King were still alive, she continued, “he might remind us not to be so scornful and disparaging of young people. Because in every generation when there’s been a great movement in this country, it’s always been led by young people. Young people have always shown us the way. [At the age he was while leading the protests] Dr. King could be my child…He was a young man.”
Calling herself a “country girl at heart” as the third generation in her family to grow up in rural North Carolina, Edwards said, “One of the things I learned was that in a lot of ways we’re not all that different. We share the same concerns and values—making sure that our children have a good education and that they do better than we did. Building on the modern Civil Rights Movement, we’ve had an opportunity to realize those dreams for ourselves and our children. Are we where we need to be? Absolutely not. But I’ve never really viewed civil rights as a moment in time. The fight for civil rights and social justice is an ongoing fight. It’s not something that has a beginning and an end. It’s a continuance. Every single year of our history—all 240 years of our nation’s history—we’ve gotten better at identifying the gaps in our response to people who are different than us. Sometimes those gaps were about understanding people differently because of their religion. Sometimes it’s ethnicity. Sometimes it’s race. And sometimes it’s just differences in points of view. All of those are ways we’ve built on the great modern struggle for civil rights that’s been so exemplified in Dr. King and in his legacy.”