White House to convene descendants of civil rights icons and Black historical figures

The White House will host more than two dozen descendants of civil rights icons and historical figures as they commemorate Black History Month, the White House exclusively confirmed with theGrio. 

The Biden-Harris administration, on Tuesday afternoon, will welcome the descendants for a reception where they will engage with White House officials, members of Congress, and each other. The convening also comes amid efforts to roll back diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and diminish the importance of Black history.

Invited guests include the descendants and families of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Emmett Till, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Ida B. Wells, Dred Scott, Homer Adolph Plessy, Sally Hemings, Oliver Leon Brown, Rodney King, and George Floyd. 

It will be the first time these descendants and families of civil rights leaders and historical figures will gather at the White House to discuss existing civil rights issues in America. The guests will be welcomed by Stephen Benjamin, the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, who will deliver remarks on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration. U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., will also be in attendance and give remarks.

“Today’s historic convening serves as a reminder that Black History is a living chronicle with new chapters added daily,” said Director Benjamin. “Under the leadership of President Biden and Vice President Harris, this administration honors the legacy of these changemakers and their families not just in words, but by working to realize the vision of America that they fought and died striving to achieve.”

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 28: White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Director of the Office of Public Engagement Stephen Benjamin participate in a daily news briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on August 28, 2023 in Washington, DC. Jean-Pierre held a daily briefing to answer questions from members of the press. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The senior Biden advisor added, “This White House is proud to contribute to the story of progress for Black Americans by delivering record low unemployment, advancing voting rights, increasing homeownership, lowering costs, and forging more paths to wealth building.”

Congresswoman Sewell said in a statement to theGrio: “As a daughter of Selma and the Representative of Alabama’s Civil Rights District, I know that I stand on the shoulders of giants like the ones we honor at today’s event. It is because of their courage that this little Black girl could go on to become Alabama’s first Black Congresswoman.”

The lawmaker applauded the invited families for “their personal sacrifices and tireless work to preserve and protect the legacies of their ancestors.” She added, “At a time when our fundamental freedoms are once again under attack, we are grateful to President Biden not only for convening this event, but for his commitment to furthering the progress that our foremothers and forefathers fought and died to achieve.”

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., a direct descendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, will also give remarks on Tuesday. Morris founded the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an abolitionist and anti-racist non-profit organization dedicated to combating oppression systems. 

“For the first time in history, The Descendants of the most iconic civil rights leaders are coming together in Washington, D.C. This White House event marks the beginning of a uniting of like-minded leaders and organizations to drive transformative change,” Morris said in a statement to theGrio.

“Having carried the ancestral weight of history upon our shoulders, The Descendants possess the unique ability to lead our nation in a much-needed spirit of collaboration, community, and social justice.”

Morris added, “We’re thankful to President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the Congressional Black Caucus for offering us such powerful venues to honor our ancestors and discuss the work left to do to realize their legacies.” 

Ken Morris, a descendant of Frederick Douglass, speaks on Capitol Hill on Feb. 14, 2018, in Washington, D.C., at an event honoring the bicentennial of Frederick Douglass’ birth. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives says it has a mission focused on building “strong children,” in the words and legacy of the late abolitionist and writer. The organization reprinted copies of Douglass’ 1845 memoir “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” in hopes of getting it into the hands of one million children. 

The civil rights leader and abolitionist’s book – chronicling his life while enslaved and becoming a freedman – was banned in an Oklahoma school district. Many others have been banned in Republican-controlled states where officials have sought to restrict how race is taught and discussed in American classrooms. 

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been vocal critics of the bans, often speaking to the issue when addressing Black communities. 

While hosting a Black History Month reception at the White House last week, Harris slammed Republican leaders for using their legislative powers to ban books about race and alter the way Black history is taught to American youth. 

“Tracie Hall, the first Black woman to serve as executive director of the American Library Association, reminded us last year, ‘Free people read freely.’ And yet, today, we see extremists who pass book bans … and these extremists not only try to erase the past but to rewrite it,” said Harris to applause from the guests of hundreds.

She added, “They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us…this is an abject and purposeful and intentional policy to mislead our children and to divide.”

Tuesday’s historic convening comes after the Biden-Harris administration has previously engaged with some of the invited families.

While signing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in March 2022, Biden and Harris welcomed the families of Till and journalist Ida B. Wells, who dedicated much of her reporting to calling out the injustices of lynchings in the U.S. South. The White House also invited the Till family when Biden signed a proclamation establishing a national monument in honor of Emmett Till. 

The White House also welcomed the family of George Floyd in May 2022 when President Biden signed an executive order on policing to mark the two-year anniversary of his police-involved murder.

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (left) speak to Gianna Floyd, the daughter of George Floyd, as the Rev. Al Sharpton (center) looks on at the White House on May 25, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Biden, Harris, and White House senior staff have also met regularly with the family of Martin Luther King Jr. on various civil rights issues. 

Ahead of the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington last summer, President Biden and Vice President Harris convened civil rights leaders just after the murders of three Black people at a Dollar General in Jacksonville, Florida. 

The president condemned what he described as a “group of extreme people trying to erase history.”

“I never thought that I’d be president, let alone be president and having the discussion on why books are being banned in American schools,” said Biden, whose administration has championed a record low Black unemployment and a record high number of Black-owned businesses under his watch. 

He added, “As an administration, we’re going to continue the march forward — jobs and freedom that we have worked so hard for.”

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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The White House will host a reception to commemorate Black History Month with more than two dozen descendants of civil rights icons and historical figures. The event will bring together the descendants and families of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and George Floyd. They will engage with White House officials and members of Congress to discuss existing civil rights issues in America. The event will also include remarks from the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The event is seen as a way to honor the legacy of these changemakers and work towards realizing the vision of America that they fought for. Additionally, it will serve as a reminder of the living chronicle of Black history and the ongoing fight for progress and social justice. This historic convening comes after the Biden-Harris administration has previously engaged with some of the invited families in various civil rights issues, and it marks a significant step in uniting like-minded leaders and organizations to drive transformative change.

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