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Volume 46 | Issue 2 | March 2004

People & Places

photo: Black history month at Dryden
Dorothy Hayden-Watkins, NASA Associate Administrator for Equal Opportunity Programs, rallied listeners at a luncheon marking Black History Month, exhorting them to continue the work begun by earlier civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and India's Mohandas K. Gandhi.
NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

Dryden, Edwards celebrate Black History Month at event

By Sarah Merlin
X-Press Assistant Editor

A small 50-year-old picture reprinted in the event program told the story.

In the murky photo, three African-American lawyers stood before a government edifice. The exuberance on their faces - faces flush with the thrill of a victory the scale of which few know in a lifetime - beamed from the old photo, radiating out of the past. It was an exuberance that has reverberated through the decades since, bridging past and present.

The three men were James Nabrit Jr., George E.C. Hayes and a young civil rights leader named Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and lead attorney in the case. The three had just won a unanimous Supreme Court victory in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (KS), the landmark decision that would outlaw racial segregation in public schools and forever alter the fabric of American civil rights. Their exuberance had come at great cost.

That same spirit of exuberance has endured, however, alive and well today as Americans prepare to celebrate the May 17 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board. Enthusiasm over the decision, rendered a half-century ago, infused a recent Black History Month event at Edwards Air Force Base. Members of the Edwards and Dryden communities gathered at Club Muroc for food, music and a keynote address by Dorothy Hayden-Watkins, NASA Associate Administrator for Equal Opportunity Programs. During an afternoon that at times took on an almost-gospel tone, Hayden-Watkins kept alive the spirit displayed by Marshall and his colleagues in the 1954 photo and the significance of the work they'd accomplished.

"This is a time to celebrate the achievements that brought us here," Hayden-Watkins told an ebullient crowd. "We can't forget the progress. We must take time to acknowledge the positives. We've come a long, long way."

photo: Black history month at Dryden
At a February event held in Club Muroc at Edwards Air Force Base, the jazz- and R&B-tinged music of saxophonist Michael Paulo set the tone for a spirited celebration of Black History Month and the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision banning public school segregation.
NASA Photo by Tom Tschida

In remarks that invoked the words of civil rights heroes from Martin Luther King Jr. to Robert F. Kennedy and India's Mohandas K. Gandhi, the energetic NASA administrator - herself a product of segregated Mississippi schools - urged listeners to keep the flame burning under the twin goals of full inclusion and equal opportunity for all. She emphasized to her audience that each had an individual responsibility to further progress made by the leaders who had gone before.

"This is a time to call us all back to focus on the work that's left to do," she exhorted. "We have a responsibility to ensure that the people who made the sacrifices, on whose shoulders we stand - that we keep their legacy where it ought to be: right up front."

Recounting legal victories since Brown v. Board of Education, Hayden-Watkins stressed that a gap nonetheless continues to exist between the spirit and the letter of civil rights law.

"We all know that the rule, the law, doesn't make it so," she said. "We know that the rule isn't the end of the story. We want to experience not only voluntary compliance - but we know that when you 'get in the house,' you have to have a place at the table in order to bring something to the table. "

"Otherwise, you have no influence; your ideas aren't respected, aren't considered. We celebrate Brown v. Board, but we know we're not there yet. We're all on a journey, and we're not going to get there tomorrow. We've got a long way to go."

Directing some of her remarks to a group of Desert High School students attending the event, Hayden-Watkins emphasized the value of personal pride and the importance of young people being willing to take full advantage of opportunities, especially in education.

"We need to do more to make sure we're helping young people," she said, "but the other side of the coin is for you to go the extra mile, to make the greatest effort you possibly can to learn, wherever you are."

"You must make your own opportunities, and show others how it's done," she continued. "Do all that your teachers ask of you. We don't need people that are mediocre - there's too much at stake. You must honor the legacy by moving it forward."

Hayden-Watkins cited the crew of the lost shuttle Columbia as a superlative example of equal opportunity in action, calling the crew "a beautiful testimony to diversity." She closed by reminding the crowd of the "elephant in the room" - bigotry - that she said must be driven out through personal action.

Despite fears of reprisal or threat of personal loss, she said, it is incumbent on people of color everywhere to stand up and voice objections to bigotry and racism wherever they see it.

"To act carries risks," she acknowledged. "But it's when challenges seem most insurmountable that the opportunities are the greatest. Let's all do all we can to accelerate the final exit of the elephant."

Hayden-Watkins was aided in her efforts to rally the crowd by a short but energetic appearance by jazz saxophonist Michael Paulo. Beginning with a soulful and unaccompanied version of the hymn "Amazing Grace," the veteran session player and touring artist invigorated the audience with a blend of smooth jazz and rhythm and blues-tinged hits.

Dryden Center Director Kevin Petersen introduced Hayden-Watkins at the podium, citing her "clear, firm and operative" knowledge of equal opportunity administration "gained through years of service." Lancaster Vice-Mayor Henry Hearns offered the invocation and benediction. George Ka'iliwai, Air Force Flight Test Center technical director, was also among program speakers. The event was co-sponsored by the Edwards Black Employment Program and the Dryden Diversity Council.