BALTIMORE (August 1, 2017) – At the 108th National Convention, Kweisi Mfume, former NAACP president and CEO, delivered remarks on the crucial role that the NAACP plays in fighting for everyone to have a role in our democracy. The full transcript of the speech is below.
Former NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume:
Thank you very much, and good morning. I want to thank Kousoma for those kind and overly gracious set of remarks, for her leadership here on this board and for her leadership in her communities.
I want to thank board members who are here that I remember from long ago, but allow me to first thank your board chair, Leon Russell of Florida. Leon was part of a group that day many years ago, along with Myrlie Evers and Judge Leon Higginbotham and Earl Graves, who decided that they would give me the opportunity to participate and help lead this organization. I thank you very very much for that.
My thanks and my support to Derrick Johnson, who is serving as your interim president. I am here to pledge my support. Anything that I can do, just call. That is very important. It is very important that the organization remains unified.
I want to say hello to the members of the board, the special contribution fund. I want to particularly thank Board Member Wandra Ashley-Williams and State Conference President Gerald Stansbury for their work and leadership in this region. Glad to be here with the Assistant Attorney General, Governor McAuliffe, with Jesse Jackson, whose intellect you shall hear through me here today as a student from long ago. And glad also to be here with the distinguished Reverend William Barber, who is your keynoter today and is a man of great distinction, great insight and great fight.
I want to thank all of the state conference presidents and the branch presidents who are here. They have been the eyes and the ears of the NAACP, and the communities on campuses and in churches whenever and wherever there was an injustice. Thank you for your volunteer service.
I’m happy to bring you greetings as a Baltimorean, for all of you who have come here to Baltimore. And to bring you greetings on behalf of our NAACP, where at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, we believe that colored people come in all colors.
This morning, if you will indulge me for just a moment, I want to say a couple of things about our history, our social justice system, our education and our economic challenge, and then get out of the way so that Rev. Barber and others can come forward.
In this fast moving age of reality TV, social media and fake news, and the ultimate putdown question of “what have you done for me lately?”, never let us forget as Reverend said a moment ago, that bridge that got us across. Never let us forget the nameless and faceless black people who didn’t have college degrees, who couldn’t speak the King’s English, whose brows were wrinkled and whose backs were bent, but who found a way on plantations all over this country to lay down in their time and in their way, to make their bodies bridges that we might run across and get to the century and be here today, as the people who we are.
Though it may be tattered and torn, it is our ship, it is our NAACP, it is our bridge. And we know that people who refuse to teach and cherish their history, are bound to repeat it. So let me say to you, and remind myself, what history teaches.
It was the NAACP that saw America through the troubled years of Jim Crow and the legal lynchings of black men and women. Through the difficult years of real voter suppression that occurred, through manufactured grandfather clauses, and poll taxes, and literacy tests, where if you were black you had to tell how many bubbles were in a bar of soap just to be deemed eligible to vote. It was the NAACP that fought the just fight to integrate the military and to abolish official segregation as we knew it. We found a way to help a nation divided against itself, through the confusion and the turbulence of a racial 1960s. And then later through the I-isms and the indifferences of the 80s and 90s. And so for those of us who stand now in the first part of this new century, it is not just a matter of having come a long, long way, it is also a matter of still yet having a long, long way to go. And that begs the question, not when do we get there, but what path do we take?
Today, among other things, that fight is now to underscore the fact again that black lives, like other lives, really do matter. Today that fight is to balance the scales of the criminal justice system, and to make them equal. Today that fight is to end the new and more destructive, yet subtle destructive discrimination that affects every aspect of American life both at home and abroad. Today that fight is for equal pay for equal work. It is a fight to end the viciousness and self-destructive nature of black-on-black crime in our neighborhoods. Today that fight is not just for educational opportunity, but also for educational excellence. Today the names are no longer just Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, and Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, and Marcus Garvey. Today the names are Philando Castille, and Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice, and Evette Smith, and Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, just to name a few of the unfortunate many.
And yet I don’t know when we raise issues, why we have to explain our patriotism, our love for this country. This land is our land. I don’t know what African ancestral Americans must do to exhibit our faith in the American dream, or in the American possibility. Our fathers and brothers have answered every call to bear arms; to defend liberties around the world that they themselves never fully enjoyed at home. The bodies of black male soldiers and black women are buried around the world as witness and testimony of their willingness to preserve a democracy that they never fully enjoyed. Our parents and our grandparents begged on bent knees to be awarded the most basic and elementary of human rights.
We have peacefully assembled and petitioned for the redress of our grievances over the years. We have slept in, stood in, studied in and prayed in. Under the admonition of Martin Luther King, we waged our struggle non-violently, in the spirit of love. We appeal to the fundamental morality of the nation, and the nation’s conscience. The result too often was bloodied heads and broken limbs; bombed churches and burned homes; assassinated leaders and murdered followers; broken spirits and crippled hopes. That’s why uprisings happen. That’s one of the sad reasons why cities continue to explode.
Now we know progress has been made over the last 60 years. We don’t deny that. The NAACP celebrates that. However, despite the changes, it is undeniable that too many of our people still live in poverty, and that economic disparity has grown. African-Americans, Latinos and poor whites who were part of the working class or working poor, continue to fall further behind. Although the best social program is a job, jobs are not enough. Full employment was never the legitimate goal of the civil rights movement. Full employment was not our goal; full development was our goal. Jesse reminds us that in slavery, we had full employment—everybody had a job. So full development is our goal because in full development, employment is inherent, but in full employment development is not inherent. We want full development for our communities and for our institutions.
So, we need the NAACP to call all of us together and help shape and fashion the sort of social, economic, education and criminal justice plan that becomes the blueprint for moving forward. And we need all of us across America, whether we are members or not, to sign on and to make that plan legitimate, and to do our part to make it work. If you were to go across the hall to the nearest computer and request a simple computer printout of all of the salient issues facing us today, whether they are educational, institutional, economic or systemic, it is clear the list of problems would be overwhelming.
And so when breast cancer, and prostate cancer, and cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and hypertension, and full blown AIDS ravage our communities and drive down our life expectancies, we have a problem. And when those disparities go unchecked by the larger medical community, we really have a problem. When our young people are incarcerated and given harsher penalties than those given to others simply because they are poor black, poor white, or poor Latino, we have a problem. When banks and insurance companies deny us home loans and small business loans, and charge us double for insurance just because of our zip code, our surname or the color of our skin, we have a problem. And when we refuse to take responsibility for our lives, and our futures, and spend too much time blaming white people for our problems, we really do then have a problem.
When we allow song lyrics to defame our struggle, demean our ancestors, denigrate our women and disrespect our culture, we have a problem. You know, there is an African proverb that says, “It’s not what you call me, it’s what I answer to.” Young people, your name is not bitch, it’s not hoe, it’s not yo’, it’s not nigga’. You are the inheritors of a proud legacy of men and women who were builders and thinkers and problem-solvers; a race of people with pride, who took little and did much with it. Educationally you know better than I that our young girls and young boys are still dropping out of school and being suspended at disproportionate rates. Our public schools are still overcrowded and many of them are still ill-equipped. And drugs sometimes tend to be more available than textbooks.
Far too many of our young people are being promoted because of their age, or their size or their athleticism. Too many are graduating with essentially a certificate of attendance, rather than meaningful high school diplomas. And why? It’s because they didn’t learn subject verb agreement along the way. It’s because no one showed them how to prepare for exams; no one talked to them about how to balance a budget later in life. And in higher education, the threat is equally as severe. Black colleges and universities are no longer fighting for just buildings and books and staff. Black colleges and universities are fighting for their very survival. Many of those who would do away with those universities and colleges would argue they have no value, they have no worth. And so we should argue that we should begin the process, they say, of folding them into other institutions. Or, as some say, just close them down altogether. We can’t wait for that debate to play out because the argument was stacked before the debate began.
And so it is imperative, brother Jackson, that we insert logic into an illogical argument. And so, NAACP, hasten to remind others who come to us with that, that as long as there is a Harvard and a Yale that remain essentially WASPed, even though others may attend, that is not considered inconsistent in American educational practice. As long as there is a Brandeis and a Yeshiva that remain essentially Jewish even though others may attend, that is not considered inconsistent in American educational practice. As long as there is a Notre Dame and a Catholic U that remain essentially Catholic even though others may attend, then logic tells me that we ought to have a Howard, and a Hampton, and a Morgan, and a Morehouse, and a FAMU, and a Fisk, and a Grambling that remain essentially black even though others may attend.
And so economically, it’s clear that after many years of Congressional acquiescence to this concept of Robin Hood in reverse, the “haves” have more. Congress will not help until we vote to help many of them out of office, because people who do not vote have no line of credit with the people who are elected, and therefore pose no threat to those who work daily against their interests. Under the concept they have of Robin Hood in Reverse, the Congressional budget appropriations continue to work against us.
And so that begs the real question at this conference. What is our plan? If we are to be like little David, what’s our slingshot? What is our stone? Jesse often reminded us over the years that the American economy is like an unexplored treasure chest in a wrecked ship that now must be opened, inspected and liberated. And what does then this nation of consumers represent? It represents 45 to 50 million black people, the largest body of African-ancestered individuals anywhere in the world other than Nigeria. It represents unparalleled political power, enough voting strength to make or break presidents when we do it. It represents $40 million dollars a month in union dues, hundreds of millions of dollars in pension funds contributed weekly, dollars paid to state and local taxes that run into the billions. It represents a $185 billion a year income, with spending power that just goes off into multiples. It represents an English speaking consumer market that is immediately accessible. The most educated minds, the best trained labor force of any industrial nation in the world. A link and a bridge to the markets of other non-white developing countries. Long gone are the days when the nation could make a profit without us. We are necessary, but we must realize that.
What is our slingshot, and what is our stone? We need a game plan that includes access to capital, cross-fertilization of our small businesses and enforcement—legal enforcement of laws and targeted boycotts of those businesses that seek to boycott us by taking our dollars but refusing to provide opportunities.
And so in closing, I would ask you to remember the words of the late Dr. Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, one of the great thinkers of our time. Mays said that he or she who starts behind in the race of life, would either have to run faster or forever remain behind. Those of you who are here to today clearly all ran faster. Your sacrifice and your achievements with the NAACP reminds us that [René] Crevel was right when he said that “no daring is fatal.” That [Jean-Paul] Sartre was right when he said that “the maximum hope would lie closest to the maximum danger.” That Dr. King was right when he said, “For the true believers, the darkness would be light enough.”
And so there will be those who council you in this time to be silent. They will say that you are reactionary and suggest that you look the other way and then hope for the best. And yet you know and I know that we can’t be silent when we know that racism and sexism and anti-Semitism are wrong. We can’t be silent when we realize the awful truth that black bigotry is just as cruel and evil as white bigotry, that bigots come in all colors and we don’t need them. When we know in our heart of hearts as we do that gay bashing and immigrant bashing and union bashing deplete us as a nation, and rob us of our real ability to make real and lasting change.
And so when the timid come running to you after this convention and say they fear even to try any more, we must reply that we still have a shining and powerful dream given by a shining and powerful God. When you hear that new version of an old song that speaks of gradualism; when you are told to wait for the next tomorrow and the next tomorrow, for the next election or the next generation, we must reply as Martin Luther King did from that old Birmingham jail and say, “No, now is the time and today is the day.” And because it is, we have another chance to balance the scales of justice and to make them equal. Because it is, we have another chance to confront the doors of opportunity and make them open. Because it is, we have another chance to seize the chains of mental bondage and to set and break them free.
The NAACP has not given up on the American idea, or the American possibility. And I ask Americans of all races not to give up also. I am convinced that this nation still stands before the world as perhaps the last expression of a possibility of mankind devising a social order where justice is the supreme ruler, and law is but its instrument; where freedom is the dominant creed and order but its practice; where equity is the common practice and fraternity the true human condition.
God bless you at this convention today, and beyond. More importantly, God bless America and God bless a more relevant and a more even determined NAACP to lead all of us together, one by one, into a brighter future.
Thank you all very much.
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Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities. You can read more about the NAACP’s work and our six “Game Changer” issue areas here.