Unwept, Unhonored, and Unsung

Today, forty-nine years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered.

One of the greatest leaders of the Civil Rights Movement was killed because he dared to believe that the world was capable of change. And he acted on those beliefs.

Slavery had been abolished for almost one hundred years when Dr. King helped lead the infamous March on Washington in August of 1963. Amazing how even after one hundred years, equality still had not been realized for African-Americans. Even Virginia was still turning up its nose well into the 1960s at the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board of Education, which declared public school segregation unconstitutional. African-American men had had the right to vote since 1870 with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, but yet there was still a need to pass the Voting Rights Act – in 1965!

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act “ended” discrimination against anyone based on race, gender, nationality, religious beliefs, or color.

African-American men could be drafted into the military. But they couldn’t use the same drinking fountain or use the same bathroom or sit in the same area of a bus as their white counterparts until change started to take root in the 1960s.

And it only took almost one hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

Rosa Parks is another famous example of the need for the Civil Rights Movement. Imagine being ARRESTED just because you didn’t give up your seat to someone who demanded it, even though you were sitting in the “appropriate” section of the bus. The 1950s were a time where, yes, women didn’t have much say in anything (which is why I’m glad I live in today’s world); but in that day and age, men were expected to stand up and offer their seats to ladies. How humiliating is that to be a lady in the ’50s and have a law that says you can’t sit wherever you please on a public transit – something for which you help pay.

Today, these amazing people, among many others, are remembered and honored for their heroic work, and we are grateful to them for being radical enough to bring about change.

But what about those who were also pioneers but are hardly ever mentioned?

I finished reading the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, quite serendipitously, on International Women’s Day. (This is now one of my top five favorite books of all time; if you haven’t read it, you MUST. It should be an item on your bucket list.) She brought a piece of forgotten history to the forefront of American minds: the significant impact of African-American women on the conception and continuing success of NASA.

However, she brings to light an important paradox in the lives of African-Americans and other minorities before and during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. These men and women were willing to sacrifice for their country, whether it be fighting on a battlefield or the home front; but it was a country that didn’t want them. And yet they were still willing to fight not only for their country but also for their place in it. Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson went unrecognized for years for their work until Ms. Shetterly’s book was published.

And there’s another African-American woman whose story went untold for decades until 2010 when the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot was published. (Another of my top five favorite books and a definite bucket-list-must-read.) Have you ever heard of the HeLa cell line (for Henrietta Lacks)? It is the first immortal cell line where the cells keep reproducing, and because of this line, the polio vaccine and advancements in cancer and AIDS research have been made possible.

But the original cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent (a common practice in the 1950s) when she went in for treatment for cervical cancer (from which she tragically died at the age of 31). And no one knew for decades who the original source was. This woman helped pave the way for major leaps and bounds in medical research, and yet history made her an obscurity for nearly 60 years.

In a previous post, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun(ding)!,” I discussed how women have also been struggling for their rights and have been waiting with bated breath when equality will mean exactly what it was intended to mean: EVERYONE has equal rights.

Do we remember Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Nobel Prize winner who discovered the nerve growth factor, paving the way for more advanced immunology research?

What about Dr. Lise Meitner, the discoverer of nuclear fission and for whom the element Meitnerium is named?

Or Mary Sherman Morgan, the first American female rocket scientist who found a way to create the fuel that helped Explorer 1 launch into space?

There are many heroes whose recognition has lain dormant for decades. We praise great men like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, and deservedly so. But there are so many others who have left their own mark on societal progress.

Perhaps we, as a society, should start catching up.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

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