President Benjamin Todd Jealous Addresses NAACP National ConventionJuly 13, 2009
Good morning. Sorry, that sort of choked me up when he talked about the first time we met.
You know, death row is a very real place. It's a very real place. I probably worked on about 300 death row cases in my life, one way or the other, sometimes just sending out notice to people, asking them to speak up and say don't kill this person. It's what my God commands me to do.
And you know when a small boy and his mama comes to you and says my brother, my uncle is innocent, the only thing that you can do is say, well, if you bring me the evidence we'll do what we can do.
And at that conference 13 years ago, there were dozens of families saying my brother, my uncle, my aunt, my husband is innocent, and there was only one, that when I said bring me the proof, brought the proof.
And so, when seven witnesses come forward and say we lied, and there were only nine who put that person on death row in the first place, and most of those say that one of the other people claiming to be a witness is the actual killer, and six more come forward and say, “Yep, that's the actual killer,” then you do everything in your power to make sure that that woman's brother and that boy's uncle ain't put to death before the truth is known.
Good morning. My name is Benjamin Todd Jealous, and I am proud and humble to be the 17th President of the NAACP.
And on this morning, I am especially proud to be called Ben, ya'll.
And I'm also glad that Rev. Dr. Benjamin Hooks spoke because when ya'll go home and say Ben's speech was really awesome, I'll get some of that credit.
The first thing that I want to convey to you this morning is that we are winning. We have won major reforms in Congress like the Lilly Ledbetter Law, like keeping hundreds of millions of dollars in the stimulus bill for public schools, and state houses and counties and cities across this country. We are winning, from Florida where we reformed the zero tolerance policies to Connecticut where we increased the number of votes against the death penalty in the state legislature by 50 percent in 1 year and put a bill on the governor's desk that her hand had to shake when she signed to veto it. She will sign that bill one day or we will make it law without her. To New Mexico where we outlawed racial profiling, to right here in New York where we dropped the rock and eviscerated the Rockefeller Drug Laws, up to Maine where we made it possible for women to wear head scarves in prison.
We are a “very black organization”, but we ain't a “black organization.” And there is a difference. We're a human rights organization. We're a civil rights organization, and we fight for the dignity of all people in this country.
And down to South Carolina, down to the South Carolina where we won a victory to get the Confederate swastika off the top of the dome…and then they put it down in front like a hood ornament.
And they put a fence around it to guard because an activist dressed up like Santa Claus one day and burned it.
And then they put spotlights on it so you could see it at night, and then they gave it its own armed guard. We won a victory in getting the ACC to take their baseball games out of the state.
Because of the hard work of all of you, membership is up in the field and online in the worst economy in modern memory because of the hard work of Vice Chair Brock and State Conference President Hazel Dukes and Leon Russell, the man behind the powerful women of the NAACP back here running the stage. This is the biggest convention that Ms. Aponte has seen in her 41 years with the NAACP.
And after years in the red, we are back in the black.
In other words, brothers and sisters, the state of the NAACP is strong.
And before we meet again, we will deliver the first woman of color to a seat on the Supreme Court.
We will pass more major reforms in states as diverse as California and Kansas. We will outlaw racial profiling everywhere, and, if Rev. Barber has anything to do with it, we'll pass the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina.
And, in Savannah, Georgia, where our local volunteers and national staff, national field staff led by Charles White, Stefanie Brown and Roger Vann, in response to the DA, saying, “Well, I haven't heard from anybody in my community about this case.” We responded by putting 12,000 signatures on his desk from the local community and 65,000 from the rest of the country. The tide is turning every day, and we will save Troy Davis's life before this year is over.
Thank you, DeJaun, and thank you to Georgia State Conference President Ed Dubose for standing here with him.
I'm especially proud of DeJaun. He's not only the nephew of Troy Davis, not only somebody who I met years ago on this journey to finish Thurgood Marshall's work and abolish the death penalty in this country. He's a young scholar. He's an ACT-SO participant. He's a third generation member of the NAACP, and he represents the best of young people in this great association.
I would like to recognize and thank the former CEOs upon whose broad shoulders I stand, who are with us here today. Honestly, I could have just done this whole speech with footnotes. I could have said: For tone and inspiration, see Kweisi Mfume. For history, see Dennis Hayes. For technology and sense of righteous impatience, see Bruce Gordon. For the true spirit of the NAACP, see the Shinholster Family.
And, for everything, everything else from humor to the Holy Ghost, see Dr. Hooks.
Thank you to our Chairman, Julian Bond. It's been said before this morning, but it is especially fitting that you receive our highest honor this year, our centennial year.
And to all of us who learned about the big victories of the Civil Rights Movement in black and white photographs, to every ?? if everybody here is between 16 and 36, will you please stand up?
If you're under 36, please stand up.
If you're under 36, please stand up. Stand up. Stand up. Stand up.
In the balcony, stand up. Yes, we can see you up there. Stand up.
I want to say to you, because a generation is 20 years, that your generation is running the NAACP.
Again, thank you, Vice Chair Roslyn Brock, for your leadership, your commitment, your vision, your tenacity in bringing us to this great moment as Chair of our convention and of the centennial year.
Thank you, Mama Dukes, for your gracious hospitality, your hard work, your support. You're my mama, too, and that means a lot.
Thank you to Chairman Duffy and Vice Chair Marcella Maxwell for leading and reinvigorating our SCF trustees.
Thank you to all of the board members and trustees for your vision and guidance.
For those of you who say “Oh, the Board is so big”, I would remind you the ACLU Board is 89, the Human Rights Campaign's Board is 200, and the Board of the National Association of Home Builders is a mind?boggling 2,312. We are a movement, and we need diverse representation from across this country.
And thank you to all of you who have made this the biggest, baddest, boldest convention in the history of the NAACP, who defy those who said, well, in a recession, no one will show up, so you better downsize.
This is the NAACP. You better supersize your expectations.
As a point of personal privilege, I want to do what Hazel usually does for me and recognize my wife, my beautiful and brilliant wife.
And our baby, Morgan. My parents, all of them, from Pacific Grove, the ones who raised me, and from Pittsburgh, the ones who taught me so much.
AUDIENCE: It's all right, Ben.
And my 92?year?old grandmother who's a third generation member of this association and who told me when I was 12 and was writing a family history and said, what is your earliest memory? And she said, “You know my earliest memory is walking all the way down to the mailbox on the country road at the family farm by myself and pulling out the Crisis Magazine for my daddy and run it back to him because he looked forward to that ?? that, in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, was his connection to the outside world.” She couldn't be here, but she is very much with all of us in spirit. She used to watch Juanita Jackson Mitchell's children while Juanita ran the branch meetings. Those folks count too in the NAACP.
Yes, I have a century of thank yous, but at this centennial moment it is especially fitting that we recognize our partners. We in the NAACP are a big coalition of people, of institutions that invest their work, their wisdom and their wealth to ensure that human dignity is universal in this country and in this world. And so, I want to thank our peers in the civil and human rights community, many of which, as Rev. Jackson has said so many times, are just splinters and branches off this big tree called the NAACP and many of which have grown up beside us in a forest which now really defines what is decent and good in this country.
I want to thank the leaders of the faith community who are here with us today. I'll be meeting this afternoon with presiding bishops of several major denominations.
I want to thank our friends in the corporate and foundation communities. The President of the Ford Foundation is here with us today. They have supported us for half a century.
So is the President of Atlantic Philanthropies and many others.
I want to thank our friends in labor. When we march, we march together. And I want to thank our friends in black media for telling the stories that only we and they will tell.
And I want to thank our friends in the black business community whose leaders like Sheila Johnson and Ron Davenport are here with us, and Sylvia Schon.
And our friends in Hollywood. Will you give a hand for Jeffrey Wright, please?
Jeffrey. Jeffrey, last year, was celebrating the end of a movie called "W" in which he played Colin Powell in Shreveport, Louisiana or maybe it was Baton Rouge ?? don't matter ?? and he, in sort of a weird, kind of echo of Emmett Till and perhaps was a little bit sassy with a white waitress.
He said, “Oh, you'll serve me tonight,” because she had refused to serve him the night before.
And she said, “No, I won't, and you have to leave.” And he said, “Pardon me?” And she got the manager, and the manager got the sheriff, and he was dragged outside and Tasered. And the only reason that the world knows and the only reason that the bogus charges were thrown out is because somebody took out their cell phone and put it on YouTube.
So, this afternoon, we will launch what we're calling our Rapid Report System. Mr. Wright is going to help us do it. It will allow anybody with a cell phone, an iPhone, a BlackBerry to videotape an incident of police abuse, email it to the NAACP ?? receive a human rights abuse reporting form back, fill that out and have it tagged to the video where it stay even if, as they did in Erie ?? and President Horton from Erie knows this ?? even if they go and they say: “Oh, I saw it on YouTube. We're going to charge you with wiretapping.”
They actually sent the offending police officer to the home of the person who videotaped and said, “I'm going to charge you with wiretapping if you don't take it down.”
But it will always be in the server of the NAACP ?? and, therefore, in the hands of the Department of Justice which is led by our good friend, Eric Holder.
And we will need all those friends and many more because I'll tell you this: The days of Ward Connerly beating us at the ballot box are nigh. We are going.
You know, the only question about affirmative action isn't whether or not we need the hammer. The only question is whether or not the hammer is big enough.
You know Dr. King pointed out some time ago that poor black prisoners and protesters and poor white prison guards have more in common than we don't. There are white people trapped in multigenerational poverty in this country. There are disabled veterans coming back from Iraq in droves.
And the only conversation about affirmative action should be in addition to there being a gender ?? no replacement here ?? in addition to there being gender? conscious affirmative action, in addition to there being race?conscious affirmative action, if we should do as a country what so many college campuses have done with first? time college admissions and say there should be class? conscious affirmative action too. It should be class? conscious.
It's a conversation that we have to have as we are headed towards the moment where there will only be minorities in this country.
Tough questions at the beginning of a new century. What a year. What a year to turn 100.
How many people here were in Washington on January 20th?
And how many people watched it on TV?
All right, ya'll are the smart ones because the rest of us should have watched the forecast and stayed home.
January 20th truly wasn't about millions of people coming to Washington for yet another inauguration. Our country had had 43 of those before. It was about billions of people around the planet huddling around radios, freezing in the cold in D.C., huddling in front of television sets, crying, remember ancestors, watching their children's aspirations swell ?? this moment of transformative possibility. That's what January 20th was about.
But then January 21st came like so many days thereafter, and families across this country woke up –
AUDIENCE: A lot did, yes.
?? and said, “Why can't dad find a job? Why does mama have to work so many jobs? Why is my school an embarrassment to everything that this country claims to stand for? Why are so many family members dying of AIDS? Why are so many in prison?”
In other words, January 21st, truth be told, wasn't that different from January 19th except one thing had changed. The children's aspirations were higher. And, if you measure the difference between the distance between a family's situation and the children's aspirations, you will have the exact measurement of the scale of their frustration.
If you measure the distance between a child's aspirations and their parent's situation, you will have the exact measurement of that family's frustration.
The job of the NAACP is to close that gap.
For 100 years, we have fought to make the American dream real for all families in this country, and that is what we stay focused on as we begin our next 100 years. But, if we are going to succeed in going the full distance, then we must be clear about the big target for this century. We must be clear about the true nature of the situation which people of color find ourselves and the nation finds itself. We must be clear, in other words, about the way in which the virus known as racism has mutated in our own lifetimes. And, we must be clear about how we will win the big victories of our second century.
You see, for every century that black people have been in this country, there has always been this thing. For every century, there has always been this thing that crushes black children's dreams, that warps their perceptions of themselves, that kills their parents before their prime, that tears families asunder and renders millions orphans.
In the 18th Century, we called it the Transatlantic slave trade. In the 19th Century, we called this slavery. In the 20th Century, we called it Jim Crow and segregation. We killed them all.
In the 21st Century, it is the school to prison pipeline.
It is the cradle to coffin caravan. You know, my generation slipped into that pipeline without even knowing it. See, we were told when we were born, and the sense of victory was still fresh in the late '60's and the early '70's, even in the early '80's, to some extent. We were told, that “All the big victories have been won. We killed Jim Crow, just like we killed his daddy and his granddaddy. Just work hard, young man, young woman, study hard, reap all that we have sewn, get rich.”
And we came of age just in time to find ourselves the most murdered generation in this country and the most incarcerated generation on the planet. I can remember being 20 years old, not far from here, a few miles up town at Columbia University in Harlem, standing on the steps celebrating a friend's 21st birthday with my friend, and in the style of the times, those of you who listen to A Tribe Called Quest or Public Enemy, Queen Latifah when she wore really big earrings, and the style of the times – someone poured libations to all of our friends who died before we got to college. And then somebody poured libations of celebration that one more of us had made it to 21, as if that is an accomplishment in the greatest country on earth. Under guarding this school, the present pipeline, this cradle, coffin, caravan is a shift in the nature of racism itself. See, for most of our country's history, even when I was a child and a teenager, the primary justification for racism against our people was presumed inferiority. As utterly ridiculous as that is, it lingered for hundreds of years, this notion that black people couldn't be the CEO, Latino people couldn't be the quarterback, couldn't be the star on anything but a minstrel stage.
And then there was Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey, and Tiger Woods, and Colin Powell, and half the Spingarn medalists that we will celebrate, and Barack Obama, and the notion has been sort of blown out of the water.
But racism is like an onion, and if you peel off the top layer, all you're left with is the next layer, and you peel back the layer of presumed inferiority, and you find a layer of presumed criminality. It makes us prisoners in our own homes.
You know, that layer is both more permeable and more volatile. It's more permeable because once you're vetted, once they do a background check, or once they know you as a VP of sales, or that neighbor, or a Harvard man, or a family man, or a Howard man, or a Spelman woman, get all excited. I did see a lot of women at Morehouse's campus but that's a whole other story, and Morehouse wife. Well, you're vetted, and you're known, and we're familiar with you, and you're in the face of familiarity.
But when you're walking down the street, or you're browsing in a department store, and you're in that space of anonymity, well, the difference between familiarity and anonymity can be the difference between pride and humiliation, it can be the difference between life and death, it can be the difference between being free and finding your name on a t?shirt on Bill Maher . If we are going to succeed in destroying this school on the present pipeline, then we must attack it at both ends, and in the dream, destroying economy and health care crisis that extends in between. As we prepare, let us recognize the nature of the battles that we are fighting have shifted. We'll always be at the swimming pool, we will always be there to enforce basic civil rights, we will always be there at the firehouse.
But the big battles, the battles for good schools, the battles for good jobs, the battles for health care for all, the battles for safe communities and a justice system that works for everybody in this country are human rights battles. You see, a civil rights battle is a battle to enforce the Constitution or the law as it stands. Well, there's no right to an education in the U.S. Constitution, let alone to a good education. There's no right to a job, let alone a good job. There's no right to health care, let alone good health care. There is no right for anything in the criminal justice system than what we have right now.
And let us be clear that our modern civil rights struggle is itself a child of a successful human rights struggle, because the civil right for most of us, as Governor Anderson reminded us during slavery, was to be a slave.
And in order to win human rights victories, we don't need so much more litigation as we need community organizing. It's less about telling it to the judge and more about telling it to your neighbor. You see, because if we're going to extend the social contract again, if we're going to amend the social contract again, then we're going to have to marshal forth pluralities and super pluralities, and that means that we must focus on building big, broad, strange bedfellow coalitions. If somebody says, “Why is the President of the NAACP hanging out with Bob Barr?”, you tell him “Because he's trying to save Troy Davis' life.” Bob Barr is with us, FBI Director Bill Sessions is with us. It means we will invest in research, because what is obvious to us, many believe belongs only in a history book. We will focus on communication, reaching deep into the black community and beyond.
We will focus on technology, like Upload to Uplift, which I hope that every branch will go home and figure out how to use, call the Field Department if you need a lesson, because last year, in the last three weeks of the voter registration period, with very little money, no marketing resources, no time to train, we rolled out new technology that was embraced by about six, truly embraced by about six youth and college chapters, fiddled with by about 20 units around the country, and we signed up 25,000 people to vote, 20,000 of whom mailed it in, gave us their cell phone number and their email, at an average cost ?? and anybody who's run a voter registration drive, as I have done periodically since I was 14, knows what a good deal this is, an average cost of 76 cents per new registration. And for the branches, it was free; that was just us writing a check at the national. Most importantly, we must focus on organizing and on changing the position of young people in this movement. If you want to know if a legendary movement organization is headed towards being merely ordinary or continuing its path of being truly extraordinary, look at the position of young people on the movement.
As Chairman Bond and I have discussed, there was a reason why so many NAACP youth and college leaders felt required to start SNCC. As Derrick Johnson and I have experienced, there was a reason why those of us who are active with youth and college in the early '90's and trying to stop the Governor of Mississippi from turning a public historically black college into a prison, had to organize both inside and a little outside of the NAACP to get it done.
But the reality is that at this time, in this house, where we are only led by either current young activists or former young activists, the generations from the baby boomers on down need to come together and figure out how we are truly going to put young people out front, because the fight for good schools, the fight for good jobs, the fight for health care for all, the fight to crush this school to prison pipeline is their fight. We are simply making a way for everybody from my daughter Morgan on up. And so as we stand here on the eve of our second century, I invite you to join me in dreaming big dreams, even bigger than the monumental problems that we face at this moment in our society, and to begin this journey by taking steps.
You know, my good friends, Van Jones, says this, a reason why Martin Luther King didn't stand up and say I have a plan, you see. If you dream a big dream, if say it's 1909 and you’re founding the NAACP, you don't have to plot out the entire course of ending Jim Crow, you just say I have a dream, and I know the first step, and come with me on the journey.
And so we will dream big of a day when all children will go to good schools, and start by addressing the school discipline crisis in this country, and by taking steps to ensure that No Child Left Behind lives up to its name.
We dream big of a day when all parents, when all workers will have a good job, be able to just work one job and go home and take care of the kids. And we will start by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. Now, I know that there's some small business people here who have been scared by the business lobbies. I used to run a lobby for 200 small businesses. And they'll come and they'll say, you know, oh, your family business will be unionized if they pass this, and what I say to you is simply this, as Bill Lucy says, “If you so irk a member of your family, all the members of your family, that they want to form a union in your little family owned business, they deserve one.”
We dream big of a day when all lending will be fair, when all lending will be fair, and start by reducing the rate on student loans, and ending legal loan sharking, sometimes called pay day lending.
Now, let's put this in perspective, y’all. The top rate in share cropping was 40 percent. The top rate at some of the wild cat pay day lenders can go up to 1,000. And at the corporate ones, it's a little over 400. For the military, they're restricted to 36 percent, but for the rest of us who live everywhere else ? so ? and, oh, by the way, loan sharking is about 520 percent, ten percent simple interest a week. So it's either as bad as loan sharking or ten times worse than share cropping, but either way, it shall not stand much longer. We dream big of a day when the justice system will work for everybody, and we begin by ending the syncing disparity such as that between those convicted for carrying crack and for carrying powder. And my compliments to Gloria Sweetlove and to all the state conference presidents and others who came in to push the Congress. This is outrageous, you all. Black people are about 14 percent of the people who use crack in this country, where 85 percent of those arrested for carrying very small quantities.
But punishment ? in order to get the punishment for carrying crack that you would get for carrying half a kilo, like this much powdered cocaine, you only have to carry two rocks of crack. It's patently unfair and we will end that in this Congress.
But we will also change the very way people talk about criminal justice policy in this country. You see, if you look at the incarceration rates of black men in this society, since 1880, they are fairly stable until about 1970, and then something happened in 1970, and all of a sudden they go like this. Well, among other things, what happened was, a campaign for presidency, a candidate who actually got 18 percent on the black vote, Richard Nixon started this notion, this law and order approach, tough on crime. Tough on crime is stupid, there's really no other way to describe it. We need to train ourselves and ultimately law enforcement officials and those running for office, for law enforcement office, because that is where criminal justice policy, at least the worst ones, are made, is in those campaigns, to be smart on crime, to actually explain how they're going to bring crime down, not just cater to the ? in the every voter, but to actually explain how they will solve the problem.
You know, the logic of racial profiling goes like this, “If we focus on what people look like rather than what they do, then we will catch more people who have done bad things.” But that's not how it actually works. When you focus on what people look like, you simply catch more people who look like that.
So in Chatham County, for instance, where they are three percent of the population, but they have 40 percent of the death row exonerations, and all of those have been black men, that's how that works. So this fall, look out for Smart and Safe. Please attend the workshop if you can, it will change your life, it has already changed who's running the DA's office, this approach to talking about crime in Dallas with Craig Watkins, in Albany with David Soares, and in San Francisco with Kamala Harris, because the only thing that beats tough and stupid is smart and safe.
Now, you know there are some people who say, “Mr. Jealous, your dreams are too big. Mr. Jealous, I see the first step, but I can't see the one thereafter. To them I say two things, one, I say “Read the book of Isaiah, where it tells us that faith is the evidence of things not seen and the essence of things hoped for.” And I say, “Read up on the history of the NAACP.”
See, for 100 years, we have pursued one three?part strategy for success and won every time. We dream big dreams. We pursue them doggedly, and when we win, as I said, we always win in the end. We win really, really big.
- In 1909, a little group of dreamers got together in an apartment 15 blocks from here and said we will abolish lynch mob justice, a dream so big that maybe only New Yorkers can dream it, because they were a long way from those lynch mobs, but they called together dozens of progressive leaders into a room that could only hold about 300 people over at Cooper Union, where John Brown had been eulogized and funeralized, most of them black church leaders, to a convention just a couple months later, and they gave them the charge that those people took out in the corners of this country, many of which the places where justice was known least, and it took a few decades, and we did not succeed in passing the law, but we did succeed in shaming this country into submission and ending the practice of lynch mob violence.
- In 1918, our greatest editor, W.E.B. DuBois said we will desegregate the military, and three decades later, 60 years ago last year, we succeeded.
- In 1932, our greatest lawyer, the man who trained Thurgood Marshall and so many others, Charles Hamilton Houston, said we will outlaw Jim Crow using Jim Crow's rules, on Jim Crow's courts, with Jim Crow's referees ? it took 22 years, but we succeeded.
- In 1954, we said we will desegregate every institution in this country from the local school to the global corporation, and while that battle still goes on in many ways, Ursula Barnes, the CEO of Xerox, first black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is the latest victor on that battlefield.
We have won literally hundreds of thousands of victories. And as we moved into the 1960's, women like Mildred Roxborough, women like Ruby Hurley, men like Medgar Evers, men like Vernon Jordan and Julian Bond said, “We will level the political playing field in this country.” And this year, not just because we broke the 233 year old color barrier on the White House and moved in a black family from the south side of Chicago, but because black candidates won in majority white districts, in states like Alabama for the first time, and a black man became Mayor of that historical bash of white supremacy known as Philadelphia and Mississippi for the first time. We have come a long way.
And so as I close today, let me remind you that these ? let me be very clear, this is not our history, this is our prophecy. These victories are our victories, and the victories that our children need, we claim them now. And like you, I have dedicated much of my life to the work of civil rights and to the battles of this organization. And I am proud to say, we are the NAACP, we are the NAACP. So if you've ever worked to desegregate the military or a public school, I ask you to stand up and say I am the NAACP. If you've ever helped diversify a work place or even a lunch counter, stand up and say I am the NAACP. If you've ever registered a voter or educated a voter, helped to get a voter to the polls, helped to motivate a voter, stand with me and say I am the NAACP. And to the young people that we are counting on to be in the forefront of the battles of the next century, if you've ever used Facebook or Myspace or Twitter or text messaging for change, I say stand up and say I am the NAACP.
And if you're still just simply sick and tired of being sick and tired, I say get on up and say I am the NAACP. Because we woke up this morning with freedom on our minds and in our hearts and victory in our eyes, we've come 100 years on this good road, and we ain't turning back now, you all.
Thank you and God bless.