NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous Keynote Speech at “King Day at the Dome”January 17, 2010
January 18, 2010
If the story of 2009 is anything, it is the story of fired up,
ready to go, and coming together with “si se puede.” Yes we can,
yes we can, and yes we want to. And that’s what “si se puede”
Thank you Dr. Randolph, thank you Mr. Gallman, thank you Madie Robinson, (Executive Director) Dwight James. The leadership of the NAACP South Carolina is felt throughout this country, and we are grateful for all of your hard work. I want to thank the Prince Hall Grand Lodge and the Grand Master Durant, Charleston County Baptist Church and the Baptist Ministerial Alliance with President Dr. Givens, and Rev. Brenda East, South Carolina Christian Action Council.
It is an honor to be here on this 10th anniversary march. One of the news organizations said to me, “Why do you all have faith that you are going to win? It has taken you 10 years.” I said, “Because time is on our side, and it is not on the side of those who would like to see this flag fly for a thousand years.” What we are fighting for is to fly our flag, the South Carolina flag. We’ll say, “Build that pole twice as high, and put up a flag that represents everybody.”
Before I get into the meat of my speech, I want you all to take out your cell phone one more time. The address you type in is ‘62227’ – that is NAACP. The message you write is FLAG. If you don’t get a response, you did it backwards – do it again. We are going to take this battle over this flag to the next level, and getting organized digitally is the first step.
Now there is one more bit of foreign language I want to teach you. It is what our brother and sisters in Haiti are saying right now, and when you pray for them, let this be your mantra. It is “Men anpil chay pa lou.” That spiritually translates into “many hands lighten the load.” Specifically, what it says is that many hands together make the lifting easier. When your grandmother said, “many hands lighten the load,” it was the same echo from Africa, the same wisdom you hear from those words in Haiti.
The point of this day is unity. The point of this day is that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all God’s children. Our neighbors are not simply the people who live next to us but the people who would fly that flag. Dr. King reminded us that the sin committed by the Levite and the priest on the Jericho road was that they saw the suffering stranger and they said, “If I help him, what will happen to me?”
You hear that evil sort of fear in that healthcare debate right now. You hear it in the jobs debate right now. When it was about bailing out Wall Street, nobody said “How much will it cost,” but when it comes to bailing out Main Street, it is always “Can we afford it?” Well, if we don’t put our neighbors back to work, what will happen to them? That was what, as Dr. King said, was the genius in the Good Samaritan, because the Good Samaritan reversed the evil question and said, “If I DON’T help him, if I don’t help her, what will happen to her?”
That has been the question of the NAACP. That has been the question we have asked for 100 years, and the answer is always the same. “You help anyway. You fight anyway. You take the risk anyway.” And guess what – when we do, we win, and we ALWAYS win in the end. People say, “You have been fighting for this flag for ten years, how many years is it going to take?” It will take as many years as it takes. Pretty soon we will find out that George Stinney, that child in South Carolina who was executed at age 14, was innocent. Why are we still fighting for that? Because we fight until we win when the cause is just.
I am a fifth-generation member of this great Association. My 93-year old grandmother is a third-generation member. The first generation in our family to join had been born slaves. It was a man named Ned Plan, who settled in Virginia. He was born a slave, he died a State Senator, and he co-founded Virginia State University along the way. He led our family into the Association because he understood what Dr. King’s father understood. He understood that the tradition that had guided us that far along was that all Americans had good conscience.
For every dime of privilege that we gain in this country, our charge is to extend a nickel of it, to extend the matter of opportunity to somebody behind us. It is in that spirit, the spirit of the Good Samaritan, the spirit of the missionaries who came down to help the slaves at the end of the Civil War, and the spirit of the Black Freedmen who fought for the end of slavery that we reach out to repair Haiti. It is in that spirit that we will always continue to fight to fully rebuild and repair New Orleans. It is in that spirit that we continue to fight for this battle flag to be completely removed from this pole where it flaps, and pours salt in old wounds. And it is in that spirit that we do not just fight for our children, the children of the people here today, but we fight for all of the children of South Carolina.
You know, when you only graduate 6 out of 10 children who start your high schools, that is not a black problem, that is not a White problem – that is a South Carolina problem. Frankly, I am getting a little tired of just focusing on the racial achievement gap. First of all, what we have is a have and a have-not instruction gap. I work in the city of Baltimore, and what we know in Baltimore is that to close the racial achievement gap is only 7 points, but if we closed it, that would mean that only 38 percent of boys Black and White would graduate from high school. I am not trying to go for 38 percent. I am trying to get to 100 percent, and to get to 100 percent, we all have to come together and fight.
This is not about simply enforcing existing laws when the Constitution says they are minimally adequate. This is about rewriting the laws, and that requires us to come together. We at the NAACP know that people of color are simply the canaries in the great American coal mine, because what gets us ultimately gets everybody. Four years ago, we were saying, “It’s time for a moratorium on housing foreclosures.” Four years ago, and they said, “Well, we are sorry this is happening in your neighborhoods. There is not much we can do to help you.” We said, “No – we are here to help YOU, because what has got us is about to get you!” And they shot us out the door and it almost brought down the world economy.
We know that when we ended lynch mob justice in this country, we did not just help Black people. The second-most frequently lynched group were Catholics, and the next were Mexican Americans, and the other were Jews, and the fourth were Chinese, and even some drunk cowboys. The reality is that when we lift the floor for how you treat Black folks in this country, we lift the floor for how you treat everyone.
And as we stand here today, almost a year to the day that our country celebrated ending of the 233-year color barrier at the White House, we know that our battles since the end of Brown to desegregate politics in this country, the victories that brought us everybody from Ed Brooke in Massachusetts to Jim Clyburn in South Carolina to Barack Obama at the White House, did not just result in better leadership for the Black community. It resulted in better leadership for America.
So when we sue the banks – as we are suing 15 banks right now – the claim and the case may be racism, but the cure is for every American, because when they start with us, they finish with everyone. When we fight for good schools, we are not just fighting for Black children, we are fighting for all children. When we fight for health care coverage – yes, it motivated many of us because quite frankly, when 880,000 Black people died in the past decade for lack of real health care reform, that may motivate us – but we know we are fighting for every American family. Every family knows and loves someone in the 46 million who do not have health care.
While we are talking about health care, let me talk about a conversation I had last night with Jim Clyburn. Whenever I land in South Carolina, I give Jim a call. I have known him for years, and I said, “Jim, what is on your mind?” He said, “Well, why you are over there at the State Capitol, if you could just take a moment to help our state legislators to better understand the Constitution, I would really appreciate it. You have these Black Republicans here to pass a law that would make it impossible to pass to enact a public option here in South Carolina, but there is no public option left in the bill. We have this attorney general who is trying to bring a law suit because he is angry about the Medicare reimbursement formula, because of how well Nebraska is being treated by the Senate. Well, remind him a law has to pass both Houses before it becomes law, and by the time is does every state will be treated the same.” Well, maybe Joe Wilson could have spent a little less time tarnishing the U.S. Congress and the Presidency, and a little more time explaining to his former colleagues here how the Constitution works.
It is an honor to be joined here by these two families – Regina Hayes and her three sons, Justin, James and Jordan, and Michael Rogers. I went to the protest with my four-year-old daughter on my shoulders, with his kids Kate and Aiden, ages three and seven. This is a fight for all of our families here in South Carolina. It is a fight for the dignity of all of our children to get this flag off that pole.
The point of this day is that we are not just here for Dr. King’s dream, because his dream was not his alone. We are not just here because of Obama’s dream or Lincoln’s dream. We are here ultimately because of the dream of the founders of this great country. The most radical phrase in the history of religion is the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples: “Love your neighbor as I love you. Love your neighbors as yourself.” The most radical phrase in all of politics is derived directly from it, and it is simply, “All men, all women, all people are created equal, and endowed with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
That is why we are here today. You cannot be minimally adequate and pursue happiness. You cannot be minimally adequate and life a full life. There is no such thing as minimally adequate and liberty. Either you are free or you are not, and the first step is a good education.
Do me a favor and look to someone next to you and say, “You are beautiful.” If you have a sign that says, “I AM HUMAN,” hold it up. Hold it up with pride because that is what that sign means. It means you were made in the image of the one who created you. It means that you were endowed with all of the rights there. It means you are as equal, as strong, as beautiful, as wonderful, as deserving of respect as anyone here or not here today. It means, in this crowd, that you are most likely connected to someone overseas. I hope you are all praying for them. It means that you are connected to the people of Haiti. It means that you are my brother, you are my sister, you are my neighbor, and even if you are a stranger on the road, that we at the NAACP will fight for you. We are human. We are each other’s brothers and sisters. We are all called to love one another and act on that love. We are American, which means that we fight for our rights and we demand respect. And we are the NAACP, which means we ALWAYS win in the end. It is only a matter of time, and time, for 100 years, has been on our side.