U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, delivered remarks at the National Action Network’s 2018 Convention. She reflected on the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and outlined the fights our country faces today.
A full transcript of her remarks is below.
Can we hear it for Rev.? And so, let’s think of where we are in this, the year of our Lord 2018, as we come together, the National Action Network, this organization that Rev. founded.
You know, one thing that I know we’re doing today as part of reflection on the last 50 years, is that NAN is really defining the modern Civil Rights Movement. The modern Civil Rights Agenda. Honoring those on whose shoulders we stand. Honoring those leaders that came before us and dedicating ourselves to the leaders among us, understanding the challenges we face. And I think about then, and we are reflecting on those who came before us.
The marchers and activists like Dorothy Height and the great John Lewis, who I was with just a few weeks ago when he invited me to join him and walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
And I think, of course, as we all do, especially these 50 years after Memphis, of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And I think about folks like Thurgood Marshall, and Charles Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley. Those great leaders and heroes and in fact, it was the three of them who inspired me as a child to want to become a lawyer and do the work that they did of understanding the importance of translating the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of our country. And the work that must always be done of reminding those folks in those courtrooms of those promises we made in 1776, that we are all, and should be treated as equals. So, this is a moment of reflection and remembering those 50 years ago. And there is certainly a lot to think about.
Fifty years ago—despite great and powerful opposition and against impossible odds—those leaders brought progress. They showed us a path in our fight for civil rights.
And just think about it—in that short time span, over those many years 50 years ago—we got Brown v. Board of Education, we got the Civil Rights Act, we got the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. All within that 10-year span.
It was a pivotal moment in the history of our country. Let’s remember what our great historian John Hope Franklin said about that time. He said and I quote, “it was the most profound time, there were revolutionary changes in the status of Black Americans. Most pivotal and most historic since the emancipation.” Those years.
And so we know, there is much to celebrate in terms of the gains that were made. And we know there is much progress that came from those great gains.
We can look at everything from, and I say this as a point of pride as a Californians, we can look at Kendrick Lamar—just this week who won the Pulitzer Prize… We can go from that to looking at the progress that we made because of those who fought so long ago, when we elected and re-elected Barack Obama President of the United States.
We can look at the Black Panther dominating the box office. Wakanda! And we can look from that to Cory Booker and Kamala Harris being elected to the U.S. Senate.
So there is much to celebrate.
But while we reflect on all those achievements, we must be clear-eyed about where we are now.
And right now, I believe we are at an inflection point in the history of our country.
I think of this as being a moment in time that is similar to that moment when my parents met when they were active in the Civil Rights Movement. Marching and shouting in Oakland, California in the 1960s.
I think of this as being a moment in time in the history of country that is challenging us to look in the mirror, and ask this question, “Who are we?”
And I believe that at this moment in time, in order to honestly answer that question, we must speak truth.
We must speak the truth that we know those folks who marched were speaking when they marched.
Those folks who sang about freedom and justice, they sang about the truth.
This is a moment that is requiring us to speak truth.
And so, let us speak truth then.
That 50 years after that historic time, in so many ways the pendulum is swinging backward.
Let’s speak the truth that opportunity is still too far out of reach for too many of us.
Let’s speak the truth.
The truth is that the Black homeownership rate is about 40%—which is where it was in 1968. While the white homeownership rate right now is 73%. Speak the truth.
The truth is 34% of Black children live in poverty—almost 3 times that of whites. And as the New York Times recently explored, Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants.
And let’s speak the truth and be clear, no child of any race in America should live in poverty or die during infancy.
Let’s speak the truth. Instead of de-segregating, we are now re-segregating schools of America. You know that here in New York where we have some of the highest, where 65% of Black students go to schools that are more than 90% people of color.
And the truth is there are only three Black CEOs in the entire Fortune 500—the lowest number in 16 years.
And when the New York Federal Reserve chose not to appoint a highly-qualified Black man as its leader, we see the truth that our progress is eroding even at the very top.
Let’s speak the truth that across the country there is a systematic attempt to suppress our right to vote.
When the United States Supreme Court allowed the money to drown out the voices of the many.
When, in Shelby, the same Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act, and since that decision, ten separate federal court decisions have found intentional discrimination by states or localities. And one court even saying that they targeted Black voters with, and I quote, “almost surgical precision.”
And folks, let’s be clear—already this year, state legislatures across our country are trying to pass into law more than 70 bills that would restrict people’s right to vote.
Let’s speak the truth, and I know as a former prosecutor, the truth that our criminal justice system is badly broken.
Just think—in 1968, there were 200,000 people locked up in state and federal prison. And today, there are 1.4 million.
Just think—right now in the system that we have now, a single father can be held in jail for a nonviolent offense awaiting trial for weeks, months, or even years. And why? Simply because he cannot afford to pay bail.
And when today, we have watched the lives unarmed young Black men cut short—from Sacramento to Brooklyn—but some national leaders so called, call it simply a “local matter,” ignoring that this is a serious national issue.
And today let’s speak the truth about these last 15 months.
Now for context, while we are here to reflect on the last 50 years, let’s remember then in context, what was going on in the 1960s, Presidents of our country then talked about and I’m gonna quote, the “New Frontier,” they talked about a “Great Society.”
By contrast, in the last 15 months, we hear phrases like, I quote, “American Carnage.”
And, a phrase that disparaged an entire continent of people with words I will not repeat here.
And then they dare ask us the question, “What do you have to lose?”
Well, I’ll tell you what we have to lose. And I’ll tell you what America has to lose.
What we have to lose is a justice system that is supposed to protect and treat everyone equally.
But our current Department of Justice has re-escalated the failed War on Drugs. Has emphasized incarceration instead of rehabilitation, and has rolled back pattern-and-practice investigations and undermined consent decrees.
What we have to lose is everyone’s equal access to education. But we have a Department of Education that is openly hostile to affirmative action, turns a blind-eye to discrimination in schools and on campuses. And – get this – and I say this as a proud graduate of Howard University, and they question the constitutionality of HBCUs.
And they ask us, “what do we have to lose?”
What we have to lose is the promise of fair and affordable housing. But we have a Department of Housing and Urban Development that reverses housing protections, and went so far – see this is what I get to see because I’m in D.C., I see it up close and share, these are notes from the field. So, what we have to lose is a Department of Housing and Urban Development that reverses housing protections and then went so far as to rewrite its mission statement, it took out words, blacking out the words “free from discrimination.”
What we have to lose is a court system that is supposed to be impartial and unbiased.
But I’ll tell you all, I sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and I have been presented with a parade of anti-civil rights nominees who are getting lifetime appointments on our courts.
And let’s be clear—if you don’t agree that Brown v. Board of Education was decided correctly, my perspective is that you’ve got no business deciding any other case on any other court.
So, NAN, all this to say, these are challenging times. And I know for so many, for all of us, it can be tiring and overwhelming. And it is at these very moments though, that we know, instead of throwing up our hands, we’ve got to roll up our sleeves.
As we commemorate all that happened those 50 years ago, let’s remember what Dr. King said in Memphis, he spoke of so many things, including our fight for economic justice, but he said – and this is something I carry with me – he said that, and I’m gonna quote, “Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”
“Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”
And so, no matter then, how dark these days may seem, we must also see the beautiful constellation of energy, activism, and optimism that is before us.
And let us allow that optimism to recommit ourselves to the work and to the fight.
I draw my inspiration often from what we’ve been seeing in the streets across this country.
Many in this room have been marching for years and years. Your soles are worn out. The S-O-U-L and the S-O-L-E. Worn out, sometimes. Been marching for years. But I take optimism and a sense of joy when I look at the fact that now we’ve got a lot of company.
We’ve got a lot of company.
In fact, I read in the Washington Post that 1 in 5 Americans have protested or gone to a rally in the last 15 months. And of those people, 1 in 5 had never marched or attended a rally before.
We’ve got company.
And look at what folks have been marching about. They’ve been marching for women to be heard. They’ve been marching for science to be respected. For students to be protected. And for Black Lives to Matter.
And yes, like 50 years ago in Selma, the folks who are marching are coalition-strong. I kinda made up that term. Coalition-strong. We’re stronger when we build the coalitions. National Action Network has been doing that for years. Right?
And so you look at the streets and you watch these marches and we look at who is marching next to us and we see, folks out there are Black and white and every color of the rainbow.
They are imams and rabbis and preachers.
They are gay, they are straight.
They are old, they are young.
And when I see that, when we see that. Let’s see what we see. We know we are looking at our future. When we see these young people, we are being reminded of the leaders that we celebrate for all that they did 50 years ago. Because remember, those leaders were young themselves.
Dr. King was 26 when he helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
John Lewis was 21 when he went down to Mississippi as one of the original Freedom Riders. He was 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington.
Diane Nash was 22 when she started leading sit-ins in Nashville.
And Rev. preached his first sermon when he was 4. And founded the National Youth Movement at 16. He got everybody beat.
So, let us in the darkness before us see the stars.
And so, 50 years then after Dr. King was assassinated, we can still remain inspired by his vision.
And as I close, I would ask us then to think about where we are going. Let’s be inspired. Let’s be inspired by the fight before us. Let’s think of it in a way that we are motivated by what someone like Bryan Stevenson or Ta-Nehisi Coates will write about our fight for justice—in a moment 50 years from now. What will people read?
What will they read?
I think history will write about people like Naomi Wadler—that 11-year-old girl who spoke the truth in Washington, D.C. at the March for Our Lives.
And remember, oh she was just smart and beautiful, and strong. Remember that? And she said, these were her words, “We might still be in elementary school,” and then that’s where that part of her speech ended and then wise words followed. But “We know life isn’t equal for everyone, and we know what is right and what is wrong.”
We know what is right and wrong, she said—and so now I say it is time to fight for what’s right.
It is time to fight for what is right.
And in particular, in November—200 days from now—we have the chance to get out and vote and stand up for the country we love.
And we must fight, we must fight. And this this room knows, voting, you know we talk about it as a standalone issue sometimes. Gotta get out and vote. People died for our right to vote. Yes, indeed. And, voting is the key to every other issue we have discussed this morning. It is how we move the pendulum forward. And move it in the direction of progress.
So I say do we sit at home or do we fight?
We have a chance to stand for an America where we are all treated as equals. So do we sit on the sidelines or do we fight?
We have a chance to build a better future for every American. So do we retreat or do we fight?
And therefore we will win, and we will see victory. I thank you all.