Remarks by Ambassador James D. Nealon at a Reception in Celebration of African American History Month

Ambassador Nealon gives remarks at a reception to celebrate African American History Month on February 11, 2016. (State Dept. Photo)
Ambassador Nealon gives remarks at a reception to celebrate African American History Month on February 11, 2016. (State Dept. Photo)

As Prepared for Delivery

Good evening, and welcome. It’s a pleasure to welcome everyone here tonight.

In the United States, February is Black History Month. Each year we set aside this month to honor the accomplishments of African Americans in every aspect of American society.

I want to thank the Trio Experimental Lalo Rojas for the wonderful music this evening; and I want to make sure everyone gets a chance to see the wonderful art of Santos Arzu Quioto as well. Thanks for making this a special evening through your music and art.

As we all know, the history of African Americans in the United States was not always celebrated, and that history has often been very painful.

Our society has not always been inclusive – in fact, our democracy started out to be very exclusive. Do you know how many votes George Washington received in 1789, when he was elected as the first President of the United States?

69! Of the 4 million people who lived in the United States at that time, a tiny handful were eligible to elect the first President.

Since that time we have become more inclusive. At first, voters had to be male, white, and owners of property. Gradually we saw the value of granting more people the rights of full citizenship, but it took a very long time.

In the early 1800s most states moved towards universal white, male suffrage. Following the Civil War, the Constitution was amended to allow African Americans the right to vote, though that right was often violated through various means. Only with political reforms in the 1960s, as a result of the Civil Rights movement, did African Americans gain full legal voting rights.

And it wasn’t until 1920, less than a century ago, that women were given the right to vote and all Americans could finally exercise their full rights as citizens.

Today, we take it for granted that inclusion is good for a society. We understand that when we exclude certain of our citizens from exercising their full rights, we all suffer. We are less prosperous, because fewer of our citizens work, spend, and pay taxes; we are less innovative, because we don’t recognize the contributions of others; and we are less just and fair, which punishes the excluded but also stains those who are included.

If we look around the world, we see that those societies that most fully embrace their differences and their diversity are the same societies that deliver the most benefits to their citizens. We in the United States learned this the hard way, but we learned it!

Again, thank you for coming this evening, and thank you for celebrating African American History with us.