Full Text of Benjamin Todd Jealous’ 104th NAACP Convention Speech: Stop the Killing, Build Democracy

Good morning, NAACP!

I would like to take a moment of silence to honor Trayvon Martin’s spirit in heaven, which has done so much to inspire us here on earth.

And for all the young people who are learning right now what we learned after Emmitt Till and Rodney King – that in the words of Coretta Scott King – freedom is never really free... we must keep FIGHTING for it with every new generation.

Thank you Reverend Dr. Brown for that wonderful introduction.

My name is Benjamin Todd Jealous, and I am PROUD to be President and CEO of the greatest nonviolent army for freedom and justice that the world has ever known!

It brings me great joy to be here today with the people who mean most to me in the world – my beautiful wife Lia, my daughter, and my one-year old son.

Thank you for the joy and support that you give me every day.

I’m also proud to be joined by my nephew Tristan and my mother Ann. My mother has just published her second book – Combined Destines: Whites Sharing Grief About Racism – and will be signing copies in the Author’s Pavilion later today.

Please give a hand to our Chairman, Roslyn M. Brock.   Wasn’t that a powerful speech last night?!

It is an honor to lead and serve this great Association with you, Madame Chairman.

Thank you Vice Chair Russell.   Thank you to the entire NAACP Board of Directors for all you do to steward this great organization.

Chairman Duffy, Vice Chair Maxwell and the entire SCF Board of Trustees ----  Thank YOU for all you do to resource the fight!

To the Orange County NAACP and the Florida State Conference, Thank You for hosting us in beautiful Orlando.

Now please join me in giving a roaring round of applause to the greatest staff team of any civil and human rights organization in the world  ---  including our seven regional directors.

Brothers and sisters, I am proud to say that the State of the NAACP is STRONG, and growing STRONGER!!!!!

FIVE YEARS AGO, membership had not increased for two years in a row in more than twenty years.

Today, I am proud to say that membership is up four years in a row.

FIVE YEARS AGO, the NAACP had 16,000 individual donors.

Today, we have 132,000 donors writing checks to the NAACP every year.

FIVE YEARS AGO, we had just 174,000 online activists. Today, we have more than 900,000.

NOW...  I’d like to ask all the state conference presidents, state Youth council presidents, and local presidents, and Youth and College chapter presidents, to please stand up. And for all of our other local officials and volunteers to stand up too.

Brothers and sisters, FIVE YEARS AGO, in 2008, the NAACP registered 124,000 voters, and turned out a half million new and unlikely voters. No small feat.

Well in 2012, we registered 374,553 voters – that’s three times as many as we did just four years ago.  And instead of turning out half a million people to the polls, as we did in 2008, we turned out more than 1.2 million in 2012!

Ms. Adora, thanks to your hard work we registered more than 100,000 people in Florida alone, even as Governor Scott and his sheriffs tried to scare us off with threats of huge fines and jail time.

And it’s ALL thanks to ALL of YOU.

YOU sat through eight hour trainings.

YOU made sure that in just one year we made the Voter Activation Network database fully operational in more than SIX HUNDRED places throughout this country.

Thanks to your passion, your determination, and most importantly, your volunteered time ---  the NAACP ranked number one in the nation in nonpartisan door-to-door voter registration programs.

Ladies and gentlemen... let me say this a different way.

When we put all of these numbers together... when we eliminate any duplicates... we now know that the NAACP has more than 1.4 million activists of all ages – from one to 100 – half a million of whom are kids, and 929,570 of whom are voters.

Yes, the state of the NAACP is strong, and growing stronger.

And it NEEDS to grow EVEN STRONGER YET if we are going to stop 2010 from repeating itself in 2014.

Last year in Houston, I spoke about what we had seen since 2010, when extremists began to dominate the civic life of our country.

I told you that in the two years since, we had seen more states pass more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than in any two year period since the dawn of Jim Crow.

Moreover, I told you that even as the tide of attacks on our right to vote was RISING HIGH, that we would ensure the NAACP and voter participation in our communities would RISE EVEN HIGHER.

Well I’m here today to tell you that WE DID IT. We rose higher, and we proved all the doubters and haters wrong.

They said that organized people would never beat organized money.

---  But we fought back against Koch Brother-funded organizations like ALEC and stopped voter suppression efforts in 15 states.

They said we could never get a Republican governor to stand with us on voting rights.

--- But we did it in Michigan, and in Virginia, where Governor Bob McDonnell defied his own party’s leaders and hobbled a century-old Jim Crow-era law that barred people from voting after they left prison – by restoring the voting rights of over 200,000 people who had committed nonviolent offenses.

They said we could never abolish the death penalty below the Mason-Dixon Line, but this year, we abolished it in Maryland.

----- Lt. Gov Anthony Brown is in the audience with us, thank you Governor Brown, for your bravery and your hard work.

-----  Maryland is now the sixth state in six years to outlaw the death penalty, and the 18th state in the country.

----- We are well on our way to catching up with the Western World and abolishing it nationwide – and we will do it according to the plan created by our very own Steve Hawkins, who got his start as a 14-year old leader in the NAACP in Ossining, New York, currently serves as our Chief Program Officer, and as of this Fall, will become the next CEO of Amnesty International USA!

Thank you Steve.

Finally, they said we could not pass a racial profiling ban with teeth in New York City.

But this year, thanks to a broad coalition we helped formalize over the past year – the LGBT Caucus of the New York City Council joined the Black, Latino and Asian caucus to pass a racial-profiling ban by a veto-proof majority.

This is what real coalition-building and real movement-building looks like.

Indeed, in the past year the NAACP has freed John McNeil, passed marriage equality in four states, shut down dirty coal plants that are polluting our communities and expanded access to the ballot box in more than 20 states across our nation.

And we are ALREADY preparing for our NEXT set of victories by fighting back in some of the toughest political environments in the country

TODAY our Pennsylvania state conference goes back into court seeking to stop a strict voter ID law that would disenfranchise more than 700,000 of their neighbors.

TODAY in North Carolina, our state conference’s Moral Monday Movement continues, with more of our fellow activists planning to get arrested – bringing the total to almost 1,000 in the past few months.

And yet, even as we advance civil and human rights in this country, even as we fight back and prepare for our next victories, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that these are not only times of great possibility; they are also times of great peril.

We HEAR it in the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

We SEE it in the verdict handed down in Sanford two nights ago.

And we FEEL it every time we watch one of our young sons – or nephews – walk out the front door and pull up his hoodie over his head.

I remember the first time I recognized that history could move in two directions at once.

As I looked at the faces of our young people the night that the verdict came down and listened to their concerns, my mind raced back to a night in 1993, one year after the Rodney King trial.

It’s a night some of you have heard me talk about before, but some stories bear repeating.

I was in college and we were celebrating a friend’s twenty-first birthday. A round of toasts went up.  First we toasted our friend’s 21st birthday. Then a friend, who was caught with a wave of sadness, poured libations of memory to all those we knew who had been killed or sent to prison before we even GOT to college. 

THEN, trying to turn the mood around, a friend held up his glass to toast the fact that one more of us had survived to 21.

I could not raise my glass on that last toast.  In fact, it felt as if the motion cut me like a knife. 

The fact that a man of any race, of any age, in this country – the world’s greatest and wealthiest democracy – had his expectations for any group of men, let alone our own, so reduced as to think it an accomplishment to simply breathe past the age of 21 – the very notion cut me to the core. 

The pain stuck with me, and finally I did what I’m still blessed to do when I’m stuck.

I went to my grandmother’s table and I laid my burdens down.

I said, “Grandma, what happened?  You told me that we were supposed to be the first generation to be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character,

---- Not because of WHAT we are or WHERE we come from, but WHO we are and where we are headed.

And Grandma, you told me that we would simply reap what y’all had sewn, that fighting for our rights was optional, because y’all had killed Jim Crow just like your grandparents had killed his daddy. 

You said all we had to do was keep our nose clean and study hard.  And you know, Grandma, that worked for MANY of us – it worked for me.  But I dare say it didn’t work for MOST of us. For my generation has grown up just in time to find itself the MOST INCARCERATED generation on the planet and the MOST MURDERED in the country. 

And my grandma, she looked at me, she got real quiet, and she said, “Son, it’s sad but it’s simple.  We got what we fought for, but we lost what we had.”

--- We GOT THE RIGHT to be police officers, lost the right to live in safe communities.

--- We GOT THE RIGHT to send our kids to any school, lost the right to assume our kids would be loved at whatever school they went too.

--- We GOT THE RIGHT to live in any community, lost the right to know that the self-appointed community watch volunteer would not kill our kid.

In that short summation of the last 100 years of the struggle for freedom in this country  --  my grandmother issued a subtle admonition that at any moment in the fight for freedom and justice, we must be clear on both what we are fighting for and how we will protect what we already have.

So, what we are fighting for?

We are fighting for our children…for their future to be robust…for their equality to be affirmed….for their lives to protected.

This is why we fight FOR education, and against MASS INCARCERATION

This is why we fight FOR J-O-Bees and against H-IV

This is why we fight for CLIMATE JUSTICE…and against this CLIMATE OF INJUSTICE…for our economic liberation…and against criminalization and discrimination

The focus of our struggle has always been the commitment that our children will have a better future than we did.

This has been true ever since the first slave rebellion in Virginia, when African slaves and Irish indentured servants rose up together against the agents of a King who had just decreed that their status as slaves and as servants would apply to their CHILDREN as well.

In other words, what spurred them into ACTION was not so much their OWN situation as much as the notion that their CHILDREN’S situation would be no better.

That a child born to a slave would always BE a slave…that a child born to an indentured servant would REMAIN an indentured servant even after their parent was freed. 

That’s how it’s always been --the source and the sustenance of the American Dream…how it’s always been.

Hold your child in your arms in the land of the free…just listen to them breathe… and your mind can’t help but fly to the dreams you have for them.

In short, we fight as hard as we do because our dreams for our children are as big as they are.

So, if our children are what we are fighting for…then what do ALL have to hold on to?

What do we have to hold on to?

If each of us has anything – even those of us who don’t have a house, or a car, or a family to feed, or job to hold on to – if we don’t have any earthly possessions at all…As AMERICANS…As CITIZENS OF THE GREAT U-S-of-A...

As soon as we turn 18, WE HAVE OUR RIGHT TO VOTE

This is the right that has been won by our ancestors again and again. Through the American Revolution, THROUGH the Civil War, THROUGH the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and THROUGH the Civil Rights movement itself.

Securing the right to vote for ALL OF US was THE GOAL that Harry and Harriette Moore died for.... that Medgar was assassinated for pursuing, that Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were executed for implementing.

This is the goal that so many in this room have risked their lives for.

Why?

Because we have ALWAYS understood that we are ultimately rendered defenseless when our access to the ballot box is diminished.

Simply put, in a democracy, our right to vote is THE right UPON WHICH our ability to defend all of our other rights is leveraged.

We have to understand what the other side knows to be true. If they can reduce our access to the polls, it will be harder for us to win any of the other fights that we may hold more dear.

Fights for education equity, for health care access.... for equality... for JUSTICE.

Voting is the thread that binds the fabric of our Democracy together – pull it hard enough and the whole thing falls apart.

So while voting rights may not be the most important issue to any one of us  -----

With this ruling in Shelby versus Holder it has just become the MOST... IMPORTANT... FIGHT... for ALL of us.

So, where do we go from here?

First, we will CONTINUE to grow stronger

We will take those 1.4 million activists and 929,000 voters, and over the next three years we will grow recruit more people into the NAACP.

Today I am setting a goal that by 2016 we will have more than 2.5 million activists organized, and more than 1.7 million NAACP voters.

That means that we cannot afford to slow down.

That means that we will continue to register new voters as if our children’s very lives depend on it – because they do.

And we will continue to recruit new activists and dues-paying members into the NAACP family – with the energy and determination of an organization that understands that in a democracy,

Organized people can WIN EVERY TIME – but only if they are organized.

Second, we will make this country safer for our children by

-          Rolling Back Stand Your Ground Laws

-          Passing powerful ANTI-RACIAL PROFILING ordinances

-          Committing ourselves to fighting to fighting to end the plague of gun violence in our communities until we finally see the end of it, just as we did with the plague of lynch mob violence.

That is why it is so important that our Youth and College Division – clad in bracelets that read “A Child was Shot Today” – harkening back to the flag we used to fly outside our national office that read “A Man was lynched yesterday”...

That is why it is so important that they have STEPPED UP to lead the charge.

Because this battle has been going on for decades, and in that time they will rise from the children who claim this victory to the adults who deliver it.

Third – FINALLY – and most importantly – as we fight these battles, we will SECURE THE RIGHT TO VOTE for our generation and all future generations

We will start this August by turning up the heat in every in every Congressional district, at every Senator’s Town Hall Meeting and on the National Mall at the March on Washington...

Doing everything we can to inspire and if need be even FORCE the bipartisan consensus necessary to restore Section 4 so we may again fully enforce the spirit and intent of the Voting Rights Act.

And continue to win more battles to EXAPND the vote than the other side will win fighting to SUPPRESS it.

Until finally every state has same-day registration, early voting and full and unfettered access to the ballot box for every citizen.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let us take heart......  if our tradition assures us of anything, it is that we will ultimately get what we are fighting for.

Because for 104 years, the NAACP has never allowed ourselves to ask IF we will win, BUT ONLY WHEN we will win.

And in the end, we ALWAYS WIN --- because we are willing to fight to the end.

But if there is anything that our generations together must change, it is that we must not be satisfied with merely getting what we are fighting for, but also focused on HOLDING ON TO WHAT WE HAVE.

Yes, we will hold ON to what we have—

We will hold on to our votes.... and never let the blood of our ancestors be in vain—

We will hold ON to what we have—

The lives of our children already born

Yes, we will hold ON to what we have --

And Resolve to never waiver in our commitment … to speak up COURAGEOUSLY.... to speak TRUTH to power — even when it easier to say nothing at all

Yes, we will hold ON to what we have --

So that when MY baby, and YOUR baby, and all our babies return to school this fall and put their hand over their heart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance,

When they get to that place where they say “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible, With Liberty and Justice For All”

They will be able to do so knowing that they live in a country that does not just share that ASPIRATION

But that one day in their lifetimes will know that SITUATION

And when we feel like we can’t go anymore— Let us reach back, Reverend Brown, let us stand up Reverend Hope, Reverend Rivers and Reverend Brock,

Let us reach back to the words that our ancestors LEANED on---and let us seek the strength and renewal in the words of Isaiah---

“The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

His understanding is unsearchable.

He gives power to the faint,

and to him who has no might he increases strength.

Even youths shall faint and be weary,

and young men shall fall exhausted;

but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

they shall run and not be weary;

they shall walk and not faint.

You see, NAACP family —WE WILL WIN because we are winning people.

And we will HOLD ON because it is in the winning and the holding that our children’s lives will be transformed.

And the DREAM ---

The great DREAM of this country will become accessible to all of them.

So Keep FIGHTING!

Keep fighting!  Keep Fighting in South Carolina--- Keep Fighting in North Carolina

Keep Fighting in Oakland  ---  Keep Fighting in

Keep Fighting in New York

Keep Fighting in Texas   Keeping Fighting in Chicago   Keep Fighting

— Until Justice Rolls down like Rivers and Righteousness like a Mighty Stream.

< View All Press Releases