“…we know from our history that we have to have more than words…”
Reverend William Barber, NAACP National Board Member.
On Sunday afternoon, July 11th, Reverend William Barber, NAACP National Board Member was the first speaker at the legislative workshop titled “Engaging Congress: the NAACP’s Legislative Agenda to Achieve One Nation, One Dream”:
Reverend William Barber: Good afternoon to all of you who have gathered here today for this legislative workshop. My name is, uh, William Barber, State Conference President, member of the National Board, and chair of the Legislative and Political Action Committee of the National Board. It is good to have you all, others are making their way as they come here today.
This is such a critical session…
…The language of our federal constitution is lofty and grand in its tone. We the people of the United States in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. But we know from our history that we have to have more than words, and as our very able Washington Bureau chief constantly reminds us in Washington and across this country the struggle continues, what brother Hilary Shelton keeps saying to us.
We have always had to struggle to make the words have meaning in the lives of everyday people. I thought about it when I read again Thurgood Marshall’s speech, the two hundred bicentennial of the Constitution in nineteen eighty-seven. He said this, we the people was far too clear for any ameliorating construction, and yet, writing for the Supreme Court in eighteen fifty-seven, nearly seven decades after the Constitution was penned, Chief Justice Taney penned the following passage in the Dred Scott case – on the issue of whether in the eyes of the framers slaves were constituent members of the sovereign and were to be included among we the people, Justice Taney said, we think they are not, and that they are not included and were not intended to be included, they have been for more than a century before been regarded as being of an inferior order altogether unfit to associate with the white race. And so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. Accordingly, said Justice Taney in eighteen fifty-seven, despite what the words of the Constitution said, the Negro of the African race was regarded as an article of property, billed and bought and sold as such. No one seems to have doubted the correctness of the prevailing opinion of that time, and it is still our opinion today.
Nearly seven decades after the constitutional convention the Supreme Court reaffirmed the prevailing opinion of the framers regarding the rights of Negroes in America. It took a bloody civil war before the Thirteenth Amendment could be adopted to abolish slavery, though not the consequences slavery would have for the future Americans. While the Union survived the civil war, the Constitution did not. In its place arose a new, said Thurgood Marshall, more promising basis for justice and equality. The Fourteenth Amendment, insuring the protection of life, liberty, and property of all persons against deprivations without due process and guaranteeing equal protection of the laws. And yet almost another century would pass before any significant recognition was obtained, the rights of Black Americans to share equally in such basic opportunity as education, housing and employment. He went on to conclude because they had asked him to come and celebrate the Constitution, but Thurgood Marshall said I’ll have to do more than celebrate, I have to tell the truth. He said, what is striking, brother Shelton, is that the role, is the role these principles have played throughout American history in determining the condition of the Negro. They were enslaved by law, emancipated by law. Disenfranchised and segregated by law, and finally they have begun to win equality by law. Along the way new constitutional principles have emerged to meet the challenges of a changing society.
The men who gathered in Philadelphia in seventeen eighty-seven could not have envisioned these changes. They could have not imagined nor would they have accepted that the document they were drafting would one day be construed by a Supreme Court to which had been appointed a woman and a descendant of an African slave. We the people, no longer enslaved, but the credit does not belong to the framers. It belongs to those who refused to acquiesce in outdated notions of liberty, justice and equality and who strive with [inaudible].
The role of the NAACP over these one hundred and one years and the role of the Washington Bureau is to constantly call upon us and every member of Congress to refuse to acquiesce. We and our friends must be the molders of conscience and the makers of change in a place that can and too often does become drunk with the perks of power, Washington, D.C. And determined by the allure of money where, which, where we the people, especially those in the margins, battered by racial disparities and class disparities, get left out of the debate and the actions of legislation. We have to remember and act upon these grand principles of we the people and demand fundamental change with a clear focus on justice for all and equal protection under the law. So in a sense, the Washington Bureau is engaged in a perpetual sit-in. Just like you sat in at lunch counters we sit in Congress and sit at Representative’s and Senator’s desks to protest. The NAACP Washington Bureau led by lobbyist Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. helped advance not only integration of the armed forces in nineteen forty-eight, but also passage of civil rights act fifty-seven, sixty-four, sixty-eight as well as the Voting Rights Act in sixty-five. Civil rights act in which Mitchell was an unsung hero of the movement for racial equality, Director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau for twenty-eight years, some called him and dubbed him the one hundred and first Senator. One person wrote and called him the lion in the lobby.
Today the lion is Hilary Shelton. [applause] And he leads. Today the visionary is Hilary Shelton and he leads the team, a team whose goal has never been to merely fit into Washington and be happy just to be in the senator’s office or the representative’s office. But whose goal it is propose legislation for fundamental change, challenge legislation that increases racial disparity and poverty and gives more for the haves and less for the have nots. The Bureau of the NAACP is not to fit in, but to engage in a perpetual sit-in, to build political coalitions, to rally actions from the field, and to be a moral instigator that applauds when Congress gets it right, says no when the right wing wants to run backwards, says come on when the expedient wing wants to run scared, and says you have got to be kidding [laughter] when the middle wing wants to please everybody, which almost always leaves out the most needy somebody [voices: “Yes.” “That’s right.”]
While we have made progress, the NAACP and its Washington Bureau heads up the justice wing and our work is not yet done because every social indicator clearly says these United States have not yet fully upheld its founding principles. Too many of our children languish in poverty and are in schools resegregated that are underfunded and underperforming. Too many of our people are without health care and health insurance. Too many of our people suffer when civil rights laws are not fully engaged and implemented, and implemented in education and economically suffer. Many of o
ur people are making minimum wage, not a living wage, and do not have the fullness of labor rights they should have. Too many of our people live in substandard inhumane housing and are victimized by predatory racially biased lending. Too many of our people are affected by global warming and environmental disasters like we see in the Gulf, rooted in deregulation, a lack of oversight, and downright greed. [voices: “That’s right.”] Too many of our poor are warehoused in prison and affected by racist application of the law. We still fall too short of who we claim to be in our Constitution…
…We’re here today to hear the victories, to be clear about the fights ahead, and to recommit ourselves to the principle of one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. Brother Leon, Brother Shelton, lead us in this endeavor. God bless you….
Reverend William Barber speaking at the July 14th plenary session.