African Americans have been part of the American story from the founding of our nation. Men and women of African ancestry have been instrumental in forging the great nation we have today. For too long, racism and prejudice obscured the rich history of African Americans.
Since 1926, February has been Black History Month, a time to celebrate America’s beautiful diversity, and to honor those who have worked hard to ensure that our diversity would forever be one of our greatest strengths. This month we celebrate well-known heroes — Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass – and the list goes on. While Black History Month is a national celebration, there are a number of African Americans from Maryland who deserve special recognition.
I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about one such Marylander — a man of conviction, a veteran, a civil rights leader and a humanitarian. Lord Nickens, a longtime resident of Frederick, Md., is a name many Marylanders may not know, but he is someone who deserves to have his story told.
Born in 1913, his parents moved the family from Virginia to Frederick to escape the malignant and dangerous climate of Virginia’s Jim Crow laws. As a young man, although denied many of the rights of a citizen because of his race, Nickens was drafted into World War II. During the war, he served in the Pacific rose to the rank of Sergeant Major before being honorably discharged.
After the war, Nickens married and began working as a lab technician at Fort Detrick. In the following years, Nickens was a part of history; he attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” organized boycotts against businesses supporting segregationist George Wallace, and founded the Frederick Community Action Agency (FCAA), helping Frederick families in need.
Nickens served 22 years as president of the Frederick County NAACP. During his tenure as president he was targeted for assassination by the Ku Klux Klan, a plan that was foiled by a tip to police. The following year, Nickens changed the law by successfully suing Frederick County for issuing discriminatory public-rally permits to the KKK.
On Jan. 4, Lord Nickens passed away at the age of 99. Many people honored him in his passing, paying special tribute to his vision of a better world. He once invited members of the KKK to a meeting of the NAACP to show the futility of hatred. He will certainly be remembered as a civil rights pioneer and model Marylander, who had received special recognition and praise from both Dr. King and Rosa Parks.
But he will also be remembered for much more by those who knew him. He made our state and our nation a better place through his commitment to core principles of equality, justice and fairness. As we celebrate Black History Month, we celebrate Lord Nickens — and people like him — who devote their lives to ending racism and hatred.
Sen. Cardin is a Democrat who represents Maryland in the U.S. Senate.