The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Remarks at the 26th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Breakfast

January 19, 2010 - Posted by Wade Henderson

The doors of opportunity are opening wide for extraordinary achievements by extraordinary individuals. But, when we examine how entire segments of society are faring, the picture isn't so pretty. The inequalities in wages and wealth, education and employment, housing and health care are almost as wide as when Dr. King devoted the last year of his life to the fight for economic justice.

United Planning Organization

January 18, 2010

Thank you, Keenan for that great introduction.  Keenan is a friend and colleague and an attorney of well-deserved reputation for his work on the House Judiciary Committee.

I want to thank the United Planning Organization for inviting me to this inspiring event this morning and for the great work that you do all year 'round.

I am especially pleased to be part of this effort to raise funds for the UPO/Joseph A. Beavers Scholarship Fund, which annually provides scholarships worth $10,000 each to five deserving Washington, D.C., high school and G.E.D. graduates. At a time when the economy is forcing many families to defer their dreams for their children, we are helping these young people to go as far as their hard work and great talents can take them. And, for this, we can all be proud.

The United Planning Organization's chairman, Stanley Mayes, and I are here this morning because our families had faith in our futures and because the doors of opportunity that had been shut tight before our time began to open up for our generation.

I hope I'm not embarrassing Stan by suggesting that I'm only a few years older than he. But we do go way back together through Howard University, Rutgers University Law School, and many years of activism. In addition to his professional career and his work with UPO, I've always been proud of Stan's civic activism in Shaw -- a community that has produced so much history, so much creativity, and so much social, cultural and intellectual ferment.

We grew up in the last generation to come of age under American apartheid. We know what it means to live with segregation, discrimination, and exploitation and the pain that these injustices generate. As native Washingtonians, we know what it is like to live in a country that considers itself the world's greatest democracy, but that denies civil and human rights to the citizens of its capital city.

We know how hard it can be to struggle against these inequities and how hopeful it can be when our struggles bear fruit. We have seen in our own lives that, as Dr. King famously said, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

When we heard the word of Dr. King's death more than four decades ago, we would not have believed that, within our own lifetimes, the nation would elect its first African-American president. Nor would we have dreamed that the list of firsts would be so long that many would no longer be noted.

In just a few weeks, when President Obama delivers his State of the Union Address, there will be, seated behind him, the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House and the first Catholic to serve as Vice President. In the House Chamber, there will be the first Latina Justice of the Supreme Court, the second African-American Justice, and more African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American, and gay and lesbian members of Congress than ever before in our nation's history. And there will be a Delegate from the District of Columbia, and I only wish that she had the vote.

The doors of opportunity are opening wide for extraordinary achievements by extraordinary individuals. But, when we examine how entire segments of society are faring, the picture isn't so pretty. The inequalities in wages and wealth, education and employment, housing and health care are almost as wide as when Dr. King devoted the last year of his life to the fight for economic justice.

As we learned last week, unemployment for African Americans is expected to reach a 25-year high this year. Throughout the nation, Black unemployment is expected to exceed 17 percent. If all Americans were suffering from the same unemployment rate as African Americans, we wouldn't say that the economy was in a recession – we would say that America is in the midst of another Great Depression.

As of last month, the national unemployment rate was a little above 10 percent, unemployment among non-Hispanic whites was below 10 percent, unemployment among Latinos was about 13 percent, and unemployment among African Americans was more than 15 percent. Make no mistake: This is not an equal opportunity recession. 

Here in the District of Columbia, unemployment is expected to reach 18.9 percent for African Americans but only 6.1 percent for whites. Unemployment in Maryland is expected to reach 11.3 percent for Blacks but only 6.1 percent for Whites. And, in Virginia, joblessness is projected to reach 13 percent for Blacks but only 6.3 percent for Whites.

These inequalities didn't emerge overnight, and they won't be eliminated overnight. As the nation's leading civil and human rights coalition, The Leadership Conference is fighting on at least five fronts – jobs, healthcare, education, immigration, and equal justice.

The current jobs crisis is as severe as any our country has seen since the Great Depression and at the root of so many other crises. Until we solve the jobs crisis, many more families will lose their health coverage. Until we solve the jobs crisis, we will continue to have high foreclosure rates and hollowed-out neighborhoods. And until we solve the jobs crisis, parents will spend more time trying to keep roofs over their heads and food on the table than saving for their children's college educations.

The first thing we must do to address the jobs crisis is to care for the casualties. We must make sure that Congress increases and extends unemployment insurance, food stamps and COBRA. These actions will not only make sure that our most vulnerable people survive this crisis but will also maintain the consumer demand that is crucial to kick-starting a recovery.

Next, we must make public investments and encourage private investments that will create good jobs with promising futures. There is work that must be done in America, and there are workers who are ready to do it – caring for our kids, healing the sick, repairing and rewiring our schools, and building and maintaining our roadways, highways, bridges, and mass transit systems. Creating jobs is the best way to jumpstart the economy.

The jobs crisis and the health care crisis are inextricably linked, and we can't solve one without solving the other. Now that the nation is on the brink of historic progress, the civil rights coalition has been concentrating on three key issues. We must make certain that the legislation outlaws discrimination. We must make certain that legal immigrants can participate. And we must make certain that the final bill does not include incentives to lay off or not hire low-and moderate-income people.

All of these efforts are essential to ensuring that healthcare reform legislation really does extend coverage to all Americans, regardless of who they are, what they do, or how much they make.

Together with health coverage for every family, the great challenge of our times is high-quality public education for every child.

Every year, more than a million students do not graduate from high school on time. Most of these dropouts come from communities of color and low-income communities. Millions more are in under-resourced schools with overworked, underpaid teachers who are called on to be mother, father, counselor and teacher.  Meanwhile, our nation is rapidly becoming an information-based economy that is in need of a highly skilled, highly educated workforce.

This is a perfect storm that will soon become a recipe for disaster. We are all aware of the inequalities in education east and west of Rock Creek Park – or between the District of Columbia and Montgomery County.

The good news is that this year we made a down payment on broader education reform.  The Leadership Conference worked extensively with both the House and Senate to ensure that significantly larger levels of funding for education – most notably funding for Title I and the IDEA – remained in the economic recovery bill. These funds should find their ways to the inner cities as well as other areas and move us closer to the goal of high-quality education for every child in every classroom in every school in every community in this country.

But every effort for fairness will founder unless we fix our broken immigration system.

We need to bring 13 million undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. These are people who've put their lives and their families at risk to be part of America. They work here, they enrich our communities, and they help our country move forward.

Unfortunately, anti-immigration groups are fighting comprehensive reform by exploiting many justifiable fears in our society, including those of low-income workers, both White and African American. We need to help working people from every community to understand that their enemy is not each other. The best way to secure their jobs, their wages, and their futures is to make sure that immigrant workers are not easily exploited, so that everyone can compete on a level field.

And our efforts for equality will also fall short without the support of those who should stand sentry for our rights in the judicial and executive branches. This year, we have had similar success with the nominations and confirmations of outstanding appointees:

Eric Holder – the first African-American Attorney General and a former federal prosecutor here in the District of Columbia; Judge Sonia Sotomayor – the first Hispanic-American Supreme Court Justice; Thomas E. Perez, assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, with an outstanding record as Maryland Secretary of Labor; Harold Koh, legal advisor to the State Department; and Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor.

These outstanding nominees demonstrate our diversity. But, even more important, they will defend and extend our democracy. 

Still, we are increasingly concerned about the slow pace of the appointment and confirmation of judicial and executive branch nominees. While a decisive majority of the Senate is clearly willing to support up-or-down votes on President Obama's selections, a minority of the Senate appears bent on using every tool at their disposal to obstruct the confirmation process.

This has been particularly true with respect to the nomination of law professor Dawn Johnsen to serve as head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, and the confirmation of Edward Chen, a federal magistrate judge in San Francisco nominated to be the first Asian-American on the District Court for Northern California; and the confirmation of the District's own Federal Magistrate, Marisa Demeo. The conservative "scare machine" has been working overtime on fears and smears to scuttle these and other nominations.

Rest assured, we will redouble our efforts to ensure that President Obama nominates fair and independent people to the courts and other key positions, and that the Senate gives each one a timely, up or down vote.

That last word – "vote" – reminds me of one other, urgent priority.

For more than 200 years, the residents of our nation's capital have been denied voting representation in Congress. From a civil and human rights perspective, the continued disenfranchisement of nearly 600,000 District residents stands out as one of the most blatant violations of the most important right that citizens in a democracy can possess and put to use.

Without full voting rights, the District of Columbia is not only a capital but a colony.

D.C. residents pay their taxes, fight and die in our nation's wars, and contribute to our country in countless ways. But we perform these services and sacrifices without full voting rights.

While we do not have voting representation in Congress, Congress can unilaterally overturn laws enacted by our elected City Council, all the actions of our elected Mayor, and even all the interpretations of its laws by D.C. judges. Congress must also approve Washington, D.C.'s annual budget, including the spending of our residents' own tax dollars on programs such as the needle exchange to combat the AIDS epidemic which has reached catastrophic levels in our communities.

As our nation's Founders would have said, we suffer from "taxation without representation." For the Founders, that was cause enough for revolution.

But we don't want revolution. We just want representation.

Unfortunately, our efforts to win representation have been bogged down by the consequences of our colonial status.

The D.C. Voting Rights Act passed the Senate in February. It gained the support of some Republicans because of a provision that gives Utah an extra House seat that will likely be won by a Republican.

But now, a majority of the members of the House, including conservative Democrats as well as Republicans, have proposed an amendment to the bill that would force the District to repeal many of its restrictions on gun ownership.

We have been warned that we must accept being dictated to by Congress, or else be disenfranchised in Congress. After all, the 2010 Census will soon give Utah an extra seat anyway, so why would the Republicans need to support voting representation for the District of Columbia. This cynical calculus makes me miss my friend Jack Kemp, a conservative Republican and a civil rights advocate who fought for voting rights for our nation's capital without worrying about the partisan balance on Capitol Hill.

There is also the hypocrisy of those who would deny the residents of the District voting representation in Congress, but who insist that there be a referendum to overturn the District's new law recognizing same-sex marriages. Do they really fear that family values would have been threatened by first-class citizenship for many whom we honor today, including Dr. King's close adviser, Bayard Rustin?

Amidst all the cynicism, hypocrisy, and fear, I am proud that we are represented in Congress by a woman of extraordinary intelligence and integrity, a veteran of the civil rights movement and a great daughter of the District, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. She cannot cast a vote, but she can raise her voice. And she does so with real clarity and rare courage.

Delegate Norton is striving to find a way to pass a clean bill. And I honor her for it, especially since her stance involves some self-sacrifice. If her efforts fall short, not only will she not be able to cast a vote on the floor of the House but she may not attain the historic status that she so richly deserves, as the first voting Representative from the nation's capital. And there is the risk that the Congress may not listen to reason.

So, as Dr. King used to ask, "Where do we go from here?" Should we fight for a clean bill that guarantees our voting rights in Congress without impinging on our rights to make our own laws here at home? Or should we seize this opportunity for full voting representation, even if it means swallowing this bitter pill?

For me -- and I suspect for most of you – this choice pits two priorities against each other. As a native Washingtonian and lifelong civil rights advocate, I have dreamed of the day when the District of Columbia would enjoy full voting representation.

But I take a back seat to no one in my support of gun safety legislation. Back when I was the Washington Bureau Director of the NAACP, I was among those who brought the major civil rights organizations into the coalition against gun violence. Our work laid the groundwork for the lawsuits that the NAACP, Handgun Control and leading mayors have pursued at the municipal level.

In my office, I have a copy of the Brady Bill, signed by Jim and Sarah Brady. I also have a photo with leaders of the NAACP, Delegate Norton, and Jim and Sarah Brady at a news conference announcing the NAACP's support for handgun control legislation.

And, of course, I am well aware that so many great leaders – John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Al Lowenstein, and the man whom we honor today – all fell victim to gun violence.

So how would Dr. King have handled the strategic dilemma we face today? This is a difficult choice with no easy answers – much like many of the challenges that Dr. King confronted and overcame.

I won't presume to offer a definitive answer on my own. This dilemma is worthy of the best thinking that we can bring to the table. And it is appropriate that we address this dilemma on the day that we honor Dr. King.

We do know that Dr. King was sometimes willing to accept half a loaf. Year after year, he and his allies fought for separate laws that desegregated public accommodations, guaranteed voting rights, and took the first steps towards fair housing.

But we also know that there were some issues on which he would not compromise. Because he hated violence, he broke with one of our best domestic policy presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, in order to oppose the war in Vietnam.

And this we must never forget: While his life was cut short by gun fire, his legacy teaches that love can conquer hate, hope can win out over fear, and votes can overcome violence.

Today, Americans remember Dr. King's greatest speeches, including those where he proclaimed that he had a dream and had seen the mountaintop.

But fewer recall his first speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, at his first march on Washington, on May 17, 1957.

It was exactly three years after the historic Supreme Court decision, in Brown v. Board of Education that overturned segregation in the schools.

But Dr. King's speech didn't stress desegregating the schools or the lunch counters. Instead, its refrain was "Give us the ballot," and its message was that political power makes every other goal attainable.

And so he declared:

"Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights…

"Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law…

"Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court's decision of May 17, 1954."

Even Dr. King might not have dreamed that, half a century later, African American voters would help the nation elect its first black president. Nor might he have imagined that, even then, the District of Columbia would be disenfranchised.

But, in the spirit of the man whom we honor today, let us find a way to ban the bullet, gain the ballot, and continue our rocky but righteous journey towards an America as good as its ideals.

Thank you all for everything you do and for inviting me here this morning.

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights & The Leadership Conference Education Fund.

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