Behind the headlines: Why Black History Month matters

Black History Month daily series paid homage to the African American story

One day in March of 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers, on their way north from spring training, made a stop in Mobile, Alabama. 

Just one year removed from integrating baseball, Jackie Robinson stopped in front of a local drugstore to talk to the black community. 

In the crowd that day listening to a college man, a World War II veteran and the face of black America was Henry Aaron, a skinny 14-year-old, with very little organized baseball experience. 

»MORE: Experience the full AJC Sepia Black History Month Series

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations like the Negro National League, that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

Aaron, who would go on to star for more than two decades for the Atlanta Braves, hit 755 home runs and knock in more runs than anybody in the history of baseball, said later that no moment ever affected his outlook on what was possible in the world more than that day. “I knew I was going to be a ballplayer,” Aaron would say later. 

How Aaron went from the Negro Leagues to become one of the greatest players in the history of baseball is one of the amazing stories that we tried to tell this year in AJC Sepia’s Fifth Annual Black History Month Series

We started the month of February with a story about the challenges of how Black History Month is taught in Georgia public schools. 

We ended the month with a story about the lasting power of a television theme song, “Movin’ on Up,” and what it still means to African Americans. 

In between, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution told the story of black America and why it is important to tell those stories.

To mark the 5th year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month Series, we expanded the scope to see what is happening in contemporary Atlanta with our “Black In Atlanta,” Sunday proect. A story about how Atlanta is the leading global exporter of black culture kicked off the series.
Photo: Tyson Horne/AJC

Here is a recap of all of the stories that you can find on the AJC Sepia Black History Month page:  

• Because this was the fifth year of the series, we not only wanted to tell black history, but also look at where black Atlanta and black Atlantans are now. So, we created the Black in Atlanta Sunday series to foster that discussion. We kicked off that series with a look at how Atlanta Influences Everything and how African Americans contribute to the city’s cultural fabric. We followed that with deeply-reported stories about the often-overlooked role that black environmentalism has played in our communities; why Atlanta is becoming a black mecca for technology; and how African Americans are building wealth in Atlanta

The Black in Atlanta Project, a four-Sunday series, focused on culture, the environment, technology and wealth.
Photo: Tyson Horne thorne@ajc.com; Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com; STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC; and CHRISTINA MATACOTTA / CRMATACOTTA@GMAIL.COM

• On the opposite end of telling Atlanta’s story today, we went back to explore key moments, places and ways of thinking that have helped make Atlanta what it is now, like Bartow County’s African American Heritage Trail; the interfaith relationship between African Americans and Jewish Atlantans; and the monumental moment in 1970 when Muhammad Ali stepped back into the ring to face Jerry Quarry.

Muhammad Ali hits Jerry Quarry with a hard right during their fight Oct. 26, 1970, in Atlanta. Ali was declared the winner in the non-title match. AP/file photo
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

• Visually, we also wanted to do things differently. In addition to the daily videos, a series of mini-documentaries were produced to tell larger stories. We had acclaimed author Tayari Jones tell us why her hometown of Atlanta is so important to the global arts scene, while Kennesaw State University professor emeritus of voice and music literature Oral Moses serenaded us with the history of the Geechee Gullah spiritual, “Kumbaya.” To celebrate the  100th anniversary of Zeta Phi Beta, they let us watch them during step practice, and to mark the 40th anniversary of “Rapper’s Delight,” we had a host of people try to rap it. Finally, we went to church with IMPACT to hear their moving rendition of “Movin’ on Up,” to help explain what that song still means to black America.

MORE: Watch of the Black History Month Videos on the AJC Youtube channel

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, and organizations like Zeta Phi Beta that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

 • For the third year in a row, we asked a family member of a prominent African American to pen an essay on the influence and personal reflections of their relative. That is how we got the story of the brilliant, but sometimes volatile, Richard Pryor from his son Richard Pryor Jr., who saw his father as just that — a father. 

Comedian Richard Pryor clowns around with his son Richard Pryor Jr. in the 1970s.
Photo: For the AJC

 • We actually had a second personal essay this year as Joel Alvarado poignantly wrote about the delicate struggle of living in America as both a black man and a Latino. 

Joel Alvarado, shown in 1975 and today, has had to navigate two worlds an a black man and a Puerto Rican who identifies as Afro-Latinx. COURTESY JOEL ALVARADO
Photo: For the AJC

 • As we have done annually, we made sure that the prominent roles that women have played in black history are well-reflected, from Selma Burke, the artist whose work influenced the look and design of the American dime, to Kara Walker, who uses her art to ask deep questions about race, gender, sexuality, violence and identity. 

Women played a huge role in this year’s Black History Month coverage, with featured profiles on Selma Burke, Kara Walker, Diane Nash and Myrlie Evers.

 • Civil rights legends from Diane Nash, one of the driving forces behind the early civil rights sit-in movement, to Myrlie Evers, a true survivor who went on to lead the NAACP decades after her husband was assassinated for fighting for civil rights, were featured. 

• Speaking of American heroes, Doris Miller, who manned a machine gun to defend his Navy ship during the Pearl Harbor attack, is featured. As is another man in uniform, the complicated and audacious Marcus Garvey.

Doris Miller and Marcus Garvey were two men in very different uniforms, whose stories were told.

 • Two pillars of American music, Tina Turner and Lauryn Hill, were profiled.

Two of the leading figures in the history of popular music, Lauryn Hill and Tina Turner, were featured in the series, which also included extensive playlists of their music.

• And further digging into the musical crates, we told the story of the Father of Memphis Blues, W.C. Handy, who was born less than a decade after slavery ended and died at the age of 84 in New York City, and explored the brief, meteoric career of Georgia-born Otis Redding, who was only 26 when he died. 

»RELATED: The Otis Redding playlist was one of seven produced for the Black History Month Series.

• Entertainment-wise, we tried to explain the unexplainable: the 1943 dance performance by the Nicholas Brothers in the movie “Stormy Weather.” We also flipped back to the 1990s and the glory days of black television, and retold the story of Vanessa Williams, the first black woman to be crowned Miss America

• This year, in an effort to show that African Americans are not monolithic, we took great care in telling the story of the LGBTQ community, with stories on Disco Queen Sylvester, transgender journalist Raquel Willis, and Bayard Rustin, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and architect behind the organization of the March on Washington.  

The story of the black LGBTQ stories was told through Disco Queen Sylvester, transgender journalist Raquel Willis, and Bayard Rustin, the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and architect behind the organization of the March on Washington.

• Pioneers like Charley Pride, who broke barriers in country music, and James Baldwin, who broke all conventions as a critic and writer, were featured.

A James Baldwin reading list, including “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Notes of a Native Son,” “Giovanni’s Room,” “Nobody Knows My Name,” “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “The Fire Next Time,” “Another Country,” “Sonny’s Blues” and “The Price of the Ticket.”
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When all was said and done, 20 reporters and five editors produced 29 daily stories and four special Sunday stories for the series. 

Our video team created 25 daily videos and five mini-documentaries

For the musically inclined, we created seven playlists to run with stories. 

The only thing left to do now is plan for 2021.

AJC SEPIA BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2020

Go to www.ajc.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers.

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