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March 30, 2009

Betty DeRamus


Detroit, MI ( - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died in April. So did America's first licensed black female pilot. And so did the creator of what became Black History Month.

No wonder poet T.S. Eliot called the month that usually includes Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the "cruelest month."

Tragedies, of course, happen all the time, but deaths in the first full month of spring, the time when sunshine finally defeats darkness, can seem especially chilling.

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4 of 1968, gunned down on the balcony of a Memphis motel where people ate fried fish, filled ash trays with half-smoked cigarettes and parked fin-tailed Cadillacs out front.

In 1990, civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy, one of King's top lieutenants, died on April 17. After King's murder, Abernathy had led a gathering of the poor and their advocates to Washington, D.C., to carry out Dr. King's planned Poor People's Campaign. Demonstrators protesting cutbacks in the food stamp program camped in the Lincoln Memorial Park, sleeping in tents and enduring daily spring rains.

Pioneering black female pilot Bessie Coleman plunged to her death on April 30 of 1926, the crash crushing every bone in her body. Carter G. Woodson, the ex-coal miner and school teacher who began Negro History Week in 1926, was another April casualty. He died on April 13 of 1950.

Though less well-known, Charles Hamilton Houston's death on April 22 of 1950 was another blow to black advancement. The first black special counsel for the NAACP and head of the Howard University School of Law, Houston trained many of the lawyers who successfully attacked the "separate but equal" doctrine that made segregation possible.

"A tragic death like King's assassination seems especially poignant in the spring when everything is so hopeful, so alive," agrees Detroit journalist Betty DeRamus, author of Freedom By Any Means, a history book spotlighting African Americans who did what seemed impossible. "But the ideas and ambitions all of these people represented didn't die. They became seeds that would be reborn later."

"Negro History week is now Black History Month, and Dr. Henry Louis Gates, the late John Hope Franklin and others have continued Carter G. Woodson's work," DeRamus continued. "Bessie Coleman, the first African American to earn an international pilot's license, would point with pride to Dr. Mae Jemison, the first and only black woman astronaut in the world. Dr. King's birthday is a national holiday, and President Barack Obama has become an international symbol of achievement against all odds."

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