Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center
San Antonio, TX
DON’T AGONIZE: ORGANIZE
God of our weary years: God of our silent tears: thou who has brought us safe thus far, on our way: thou who has by thy might led us into the light: keep us forever in the path we pray.
Those words make up the third stanza of the NAACP hymn, lift ev’ry voice and sing. Since they were written over 118 years ago they have come to symbolize the struggle by Americans of African descent to be respected and treated as full citizens of these united states. Moreover, they continue to serve as the aspirational goal for civil and human rights here in this nation.
When the words were written, they were intended to be a part of the celebration of the 100th birthday of the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, however, as they did then, they serve as a reminder of the struggle that was the black man’s journey in this country. Forcibly stolen from our native lands on the continent of Africa, carted in the holds of sailing ships, chained and bound together, they survived the middle passage so that they could provide free labor as slaves in the new world. Treated as chattel, objects less than human that were owned by other humans, who cast themselves as superior, their labor was exploited, families were never recognized, and their dignity was denied in order to build the economic base of this new world.
At the time the song was written, black folks had been declared free by Lincoln, but only became free as the result of a bloody civil war and the passage of a 13th, 14th and 15th amendment to the united states constitution codifying that they were no longer some other man’s personal property, promising full citizenship and extending the right to full participation in the development of public policy.
Amazingly enough, a people who were considered inferior and ignorant, were elected to public office and developed public policies that enhanced the lives of every person they touched, in most places where they were elected. Most important of those new public policies was the creation in the majority of the southern states, of a system of free public education for all children.
Yet, as James Weldon Johnson penned that song, forces were in place that were actively working to take away all the benefits of those productive years. The post-civil war reconstruction and the era of jim crow that succeeded it was intended to return black folks to pre-civil war status, even as our constitutional rights remained intact. Racial animus, xenophobia and terrorist lynchings were commonplace. Thoughtful people representing different ethnic and religious backgrounds were concerned about the oppression and disregard for humanity that was demonstrated on the streets of this nation on a daily basis. So much so, that following the particularly heinous race riots in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, a group that had agonized over the situation came together in Niagara Falls, Canada. They came together to develop a potential solution. The following year, many of them gathered in a new york city apartment to do something.
Thus, on February 12, 1909, the national association for the advancement of colored people was born.
109 years ago, a group, black and white people, people of different religious traditions, professions, and backgrounds, decided that rather than agonize, they would organize. Thus, began our organization’s generations-long quest for social justice and the end to second-class status for African Americans. For 109 years, this organization has continued that battle. Today, we are fighting against the same demons but with different [orange] faces. The need to organize, not agonize, still carries that same sense of urgency.
In this new era of xenophobia, neo-nazism, and white nationalism, and amid current efforts to take our nation back to a darker and more dangerous time, I have come to San Antonio, Texas to say to the NAACP and our allies: the time has come to defeat hate.
We call on voters, especially millennials of color, to stand against the face of bigotry and divisiveness. It’s not easy acknowledging that 65 million Americans voted for this president, but black voter turn out declined for the first time in 20 years during the 2016 election. Our hope is to vote out the hate. And we need everyone to vote.
If we aren’t voting and using our voice, others will speak for us. That’s how our current president got into office and that’s how we will fight against him. That is how we shall overcome.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, delegates to this 109th annual meeting of the nations oldest, largest, most cussed, most discussed and bar none, most successful civil rights and social justice organization.
Let me thank the vice chairman of the NAACP national board of directors for that generous introduction. I am very fortunate that Karen is here and that she has my back. Thank you vice chairman Boykin-Towns.
Welcome to the 109th convening of the national association for the advancement of colored people.
On behalf of the national board of directors, the staff, the board of trustees of the NAACP Foundation, the NAACP national voter fund and the staff of the crisis magazine I want to thank you for joining us in San Antonio as we come together to develop the policy and programs that will govern our association for the next twelve months. We have come to San Antonio, a city celebrating its three hundredth anniversary, with a local branch of the NAACP celebrating its 100th anniversary to organize, not agonize. I assure you that it is indeed time to organize and in the few minutes that I have this evening, I will explain why it is necessary and how we will accomplish our goals.
I want to extend our thanks to the San Antonio branch and president Oliver Hill along with the Texas state NAACP and President Gary Bledsoe for their efforts in hosting this convention.
I want to give a special shout-out to the city of San Antonio led first by former mayor Ivy Taylor and now by mayor Ron Nirenberg and all of the city staff who have helped to make this convention possible. I must also recognize all of the people who are part of the organization visit San Antonio for your help in bringing us to this point in time. Without all of you, we would not be here this evening.
And last but not least, I want us all to take a moment to lift up the name of a person who is not with us in body but is with us in spirit. Without this person’s efforts, without her cajoling, without her demanding and insistence, we might be in some other city tonight.
Had it not been for her insistent pillow talk, and Oliver Hill will attest to that, none of what has occurred thus far and none of what will take place in the coming days would have happened.
Now, normal protocol would have me ask for a moment of silence in honor of Minnie Hill, the person who spearheaded this effort over a period of several years. But we are talking about Minnie Hill and silence was not her modus operandi. So, would you join me in offering a raucous standing ovation to the memory of the spark plug that led us to the Alamo City, would you join me in appropriately remembering Minnie Hill?
Thank you and thank you to President Hill and all of the Hill family for supporting Minnie and allowing her to faithfully and intentionally serve her community by serving the NAACP.
One hundred nine years ago our communities faced the reality of racial segregation: separate but equal was the law of the land, the recently won right to vote was under attack and the effort to justify second-class status for the negro was espoused openly on the streets, in the courts, in places where public policy was made and even from the pulpits of churches across the land.
In state houses all across this nation, barriers to the free exercise of the right to vote were being conjured by politicians who cast black people as barbarians, unintelligent sub humans prone to crime, to rape and pillage, at will. We were cast as “the other” and clearly, the “other” should never be allowed any prominence in our communities, the other, us, should not be allowed a basic public education and we were always a threat to take someone else’s job or position. The other, us, should always be denied, we could never be accepted, respected or included.
Back when our association was born there was a president of the united states who began to systematically remove negroes from positions within the federal government. He openly courted white nationalists and white supremacists. He even showed the film “birth of a nation” in the white house and hailed it as a masterpiece that portrayed an accurate picture of the south following the civil war.
But thank the god of our weary years, our association went to work organizing all over the country. Protesting, demonstrating, developing what would later be called the original civil rights toolbox. The NAACP educated; agitated, litigated and legislated. We organized to end jim crow. We fought to end lynching, for equal educational opportunity, fair housing, equal opportunity in employment, equality in the military and most importantly the right to cast a free and unfettered ballot. We did not agonize we organized.
My friends and colleagues in the struggle for civil and human rights, the theme of this convention is quite appropriate as we review the state of our nation: quite simply: defeat hate, vote.
Tonight, I have come to San Antonio, deep in the heart of Texas, to remind us all that the kinds of things we faced as a people at the turn of the twentieth century are back. Xenophobia, the fear of “others” has never truly gone away, but it has surged in the past two years. White supremacy is being espoused by people who have served and are serving in some of the most important positions in the nation and once again, the white house has become a sanctuary for vile thoughts, hate and fear.
Ominously, we seem to be facing the gloom of the dark days we thought were past. But I have come by tonight to say to San Antonio, to the NAACP and to this nation that we will not be turned around. We will not go back.
For a moment, although I am not a preacher and I am fully aware that there are many illustrious clergy in the house, I want to remind us that in the scriptures, specifically. In the seventh chapter of the book of Matthew, in verse 12, Jesus says to his disciples “all things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so, do ye also unto them, for this is the law and the prophets.” How then, can so many who support the current administration, attempt to justify that support on a religious basis?
I want to point out that civility and the concept espoused in what we call ‘the golden rule’ is missing from those who hold high office. Farther along in that same chapter of matthew, jesus asked: “do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?” He then said, “even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.”
I submit to you this evening, that on January 20, 2017, a bit less than 600 days ago, a bad tree was planted at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the harvest has been nothing but bad fruit, every day since. This bad harvest is aided and abetted by a majority of spineless enablers at the other end of that street in our nation’s capitol.
Its time to stop agonizing and start organizing.
I say to you tonight, that we have heard Dr. King’s question: he asked; where do we go from here? Chaos or community?
Tonight, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People answers unequivocally, we choose community. We choose to reach out, rather than withdraw. We choose to welcome, not turn folks away. We choose to organize. We understand this is not the time to agonize.
This Association and its allies have worked to promote free, high-quality public education for all children, we will organize to prevent those who see profit where they should see the promise of a nation of young achievers. We will organize to prevent the privatization of our public schools.
The NAACP and our partner organizations recognize that a healthy community faces threats created when healthcare is denied to any group or provided at costs too exhorbitant for the average family to afford, we will organize to ensure that health care is accessible and affordable to all.
This nation has made great strides in working to ensure that the air we breathe, the water we drink and the environment that we live in is nurturing rather than toxic. We will organize to ensure that efforts to save the environment continue and to prevent additional flint, michigans and east chicago-s to become the rule rather than the exceptions. We will organize to ensure that the united states is a leading part of a global effort to save our environment, rather than a denier of facts and a major contributor to the poisoning of the only world we know.
At the NAACP, we understand that a healthy community works together to reduce and eliminate violence, we respect all life, but we understand that the first step in that process is to love and respect ourselves and then to likewise love our neighbors as we do ourselves; the golden rule. We will continue to organize such that those who are sworn to serve and protect and those who are supposed to be served and protected share equal respect and support for each other.
Over the years, this Association has organized to support legislation, protecting consumer rights, protecting worker health and safety and promoting the right of all workers to organize in order to improve working conditions and to achieve a livable wage. We will continue to work with our friends in organized labor to work towards those goals.
This is 2018 and all of the issues that we have worked on and the gains we have won in the fight for civil rights, for these past 109 years are under attack. While we are distracted by the sideshow at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, elsewhere across the city and in state capitals and city halls across the nation there are those in power who are hard at work attempting to dismantle our hard earned, human rights. Public policy making is in the hands of individuals who have no care or concern about the public. They are only concerned about themselves and the spoils they can share as they work to destabilize our future. They will work to deregulate, dismantle and destroy any policies and programs that are aimed at uplifting the lives of all Americans and they are especially keen to destroy anything that vaguely bears the mark of the nation’s only president of color. We cannot agonize, we must organize.
Tonight, it is incumbent upon those of us in this room to understand that we are they who must insure that the aspirational goals espoused in the declaration of independence and enshrined in the Constitution of the United States become real for all Americans. In doing so, we must recognize and accept that we are a nation of immigrants. At some point, we were all considered part of a group that was considered the “other.”
Tonight, I challenge us to first understand that we have hope and we have the tools to ensure that all who inhabit these shores are treated equally and that they are in fact endowed with inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We must revisit our tool kit, we must organize ourselves to educate our neighbors about the real facts. We are obliged to agitate within our communities for equity, access to equal education, equal, accessible and affordable health care, a workplace that provides equal opportunity for all, not just to be workers but to be entrepreneurs and providers of opportunity. We must commit to organize ourselves to protect the gains we have made in the courts and be willing to litigate on behalf of those measures, whenever and wherever necessary.
Ultimately, we must understand what Ida B. Wells-barnett taught us long ago. The ultimate way to ensure justice and equality for all is to be part of the policy-making process. That means that all of us in this room must organize ourselves to ensure that all our voices and our neighbors’ voices are heard in the public policy making arena. Our voices, our currency, is our vote. The value of that vote can not be doubted. I would only ask that you review the last six hundred days in the life of our nation to understand that elections matter. Your vote is your voice. In the words of the song, we must lift ev’ry voice and sing till earth and heaven ring. We must encourage everyone we know to vote in every election. We must insure that we have spared no effort to ensure that every person we influence, every person we talk to, every community we live in understands the importance of the vote. Tell those who doubt that their vote will make a difference that they are wrong. Let them know that if they had voted in Wisconsin or Michigan, we would not have been subjected to the chaos of the last six hundred days. Point out to them that if they had exercised their vote in the last city council election they may have seen more investment in their neighborhoods. Remind folks that in many instances the difference between medicare expansion and the failure to provide medical care for the people who need it most was lost by one vote. Show them that when we organize, when we come together, when we work together, we will make a difference.
For those who continue to doubt the value of voting; remind them once again that elections are about choosing the makers of the policies, regulations and laws that govern us on a day to day basis. A policy maker decides that you have been born by issuing a birth certificate. Another policy maker will certify that you are dead by issuing a death certificate. In between those two events, the makers of public policy will influence every major and many minor events in your life. You have a voice in determining who those policy makers will be and ultimately whether the policies they create will bear good fruit or bad fruit.
Its time for every NAACP branch, youth council and college chapter to reach out to every church, every member of the divine 9, every labor organization, every member of a masonic order, every elk, every link, every member of your community and organize. We must organize now, we must organize every community, we must engage all of our partners in the current struggle. Our charge is to make a difference now. 2018 is an election year.
It is time to choose policymakers at every level. Every member of the united states House of Representatives is up for election, this year, there are elections for governor in 36 states. There are state house and senate seats up for election this year. There are mayoral races, city council races, county commission races, school board races, and elections for policymakers at all levels and stages of government on ballots all across our nation. NAACP; it’s organizing time, we cannot simply agonize. The challenge is great, but other generations have faced great challenge; going back one last time for biblical reference; we are reminded in the 6th chapter of Ephesians, verse 12 of another struggle. “for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against power, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” There is true wickedness in high places today, but if we organize ourselves, we can overcome.
We can make a difference when we organize and when we lift ev’ry voice to vote.
Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?
Fight hate: vote!
We must organize. In the words of James Weldon Johnson, we must fight on, we must vote on until victory is won.
NAACP; it’s organizing time!
Defeat hate: vote!
Don’t agonize; organize.
Defeat hate: vote!
Don’t agonize; organize.
Peace and power.