Profiles of Empowerment, by Virgil Beato

Black History Month celebrations largely focus on those who secured equal rights for all: People such as Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What’s often overlooked, however, is the path of opportunity they paved and its importance today.

The accomplishments of living African-Americans can provide the younger generation with hope for the future. Past heroes deserve no less honor, but drawing attention to those who seized upon the opportunity they secured lays the groundwork for a more prosperous future.

For example:

* Before running for the U.S. Senate in Georgia last year, Herman Cain spent over 25 years in the business community – most notably as president of the Godfather’s Pizza chain (which he saved from financial ruin in the late 1980s). He also served as president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, where he made national headlines after challenging former President Bill Clinton on his health care proposal on behalf of small businesses during a nationally-televised townhall meeting in 1994.

* Kenneth Chenault is now chairman and CEO of the American Express Company after spending over 20 years working his way up the ranks of the Fortune 500 giant. Chenault helped revolutionize the company by increasing the variety of credit cards issued from four to 60. When the company’s headquarters in the World Trade Center was damaged in the 9/11 terrorist attack, he kept the company stable during a time of great difficulty.

* Dr. Ben Carson is the director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutes in Baltimore. In grade school, Dr. Carson struggled to succeed. With the encouragement of his mother, who only had a third grade education herself, he rose to the top of his class and earned scholarships to both college and medical school. He is a world-renowned expert in separating conjoined twins previously considered inseparable. He also refined a technique for radical brain surgery known as hemispherectomy, which is used to treat seizures, and has written over 90 neurosurgical publications and three bestselling books. A one-act play, Ben Carson, M.D., has even been produced about him.

* Ann Marie Fudge is the president of the Young & Rubicam advertising firm. She became recognized as one of America’s top corporate women while serving as an executive at Kraft Foods, where she successfully revived old brands such as Log Cabin Syrup, Minute Rice and Stove Top Stuffing. Fudge successfully linked Kraft’s business objectives to projects benefiting the communities Kraft serves.

These people obviously owe a debt of gratitude to those who came before them, but they deserve admiration for taking advantage of available opportunities. Thurgood Marshall and Reverend Otis Brown may have been key to the integration of our public schools, but Dr. Carson and the others took advantage of it. They stayed in school and strove to succeed.

These modern-day heroes also share strong family values. While the American Enterprise Institute estimates close to 70 percent of black children are now born to single mothers, these people have enjoyed long marriages and raised or are raising their children in stable homes with both parents present.

These modern heroes also give back to their community. Cain, for example, an alumnus of the historically black Morehouse College, now serves on the school’s board. Chenault serves on the board of CASA, a drug-use prevention group. Carson started the Carson Scholars Fund, Inc. to help Third-World schoolchildren stay academically competitive. Fudge is involved with the Partnership for a Drug Free America and the United Way.

Many high-profile black “leaders” such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson seem to regard capitalism as unfair to African-Americans. People such as Cain, Carson, Chenault, and Fudge show the American Dream can work for anyone with enough faith and determination.

They and others like them are true sources of inspiration, and should be honored during Black History Month.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.