The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Incorporated held its conference September 16-20, 2015 in Washington, DC. The theme of this year’s conference, “With Liberty and Justice for All?” posed a valid question about the civil and social inequities that African Americans continue to face. Each year through the Annual Legislative Conference, the CBCF provides a forum for more than 9,000 attendees representing business, community, emerging leaders, elected officials, media, and every day Americans to participate in solution-centered sessions on issues that impact African Americans and black communities world-wide.
Highlights of the Conference included the National Town Hall entitled: “Black Lives Matter: Ending Racial Profiling, Police Brutality and Mass Incarceration.” The Exhibit Showcase which includes an Authors Pavilion with free health screenings; the inspirational Prayer Breakfast featured a keynote address by
Rev. Otis Moss, III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago; and the culminating black tie event, the Phoenix Awards Dinner.
On Wednesday, September 15, 2015 the NAACP ended its “Journey for Justice March” from Selma, Alabama to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds from the NAACP community leaders from across the country and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders met at the Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia to walk about a mile to the Lincoln Memorial. The march’s main purpose was to call on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which seeks to incorporate the original language that states with voting rights violations, must seek federal approval before any changes can be made to voting procedure, or laws.
The NAACP’s CEO and President, Cornell William Brooks stated that the people have shown through their actions and marching some 1,000 miles in the heat of the summer, how seriously African Americans take the right to vote. The estimated 3,000 people who participated in the march stopped in states along the way and slept in churches. Some, who couldn’t march, drove along with them. The march was symbolic of the 1963 March on Washington led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On September 16, the marchers petitioned Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act. Many who marched also wanted federal officials to implement policies that improve education, provide more employment opportunities and address criminal justice reform.
On Thursday, September 16, there was a National Town Hall to Examine Racial Profiling, Police Brutality and Mass Incarceration. Roland Martin host of News One Now moderated the panel. The headlines have been dominated with headlines from Ferguson to Baltimore with stories of deadly encounters with those who are sworn to protect and serve. According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans make up 50 percent of those in jail or in prison for low-level drug crimes and black children who are ten times more likely to be arrested for drugs compared to white children. The National Town Hall panel included Congressional Black Caucus Chairman, Rep. G. K. Butterfield, Jr; Rep. Elijah Cummings; Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee; Judge Greg Mathis; Brian Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Alicia Garza, Co-Founder of the #Black Lives Matter movement; and Alphonzo Mayfield, a member of the International Executive Board of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a co-host of the event.
The panel discussion was passionate and enlightening, with a standing room only crowd. With that the panelists came on with a discussion of what the #Black Lives Movement is.” Alicia Garza stated that “its not just a hashtag.” The organization she started in 2013 in response to the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. It now has 26 local chapters, which are working in their communities around issues of education, employment, police brutality and violence.” Garza said that “we are advancing policy at the local, state level,” and we are also trying to change the conditions and culture in our communities.”
Rep. Cummings commented that “they took a moment in our history and turned it into a movement.” He went on to say that “they have taken our pain and turned it into passion.” If it weren’t for the IPhone, he said “we’d still only be having one side of a conversation. Garza made it clear that the #Black Lives Matter Movement is not as “Fox News says—a hate group or a band of terrorists. We do not advocate or call for, the murder of law enforcement personnel.
Rep. Butterfield said that one of our biggest problems is that when young offenders are arrested, both at the state and federal level, there’s a tendency to pile on the charges and then demand that they take a plea bargain. The young offender ends up saying, “Yes I’ll take it” and signs on the dotted line. Butterfield commented that “then he goes out to find work and is doomed for life.”
Rolland Martin, turned to former Orlando Police Chief, Val Demings asked her “isn’t it imperative that good cops to open up their mouths and not stay silent when bad cops do bad things? She stated that I took two oaths: one as a police officer and one as chief of police. In both cases I took an oath that I would serve and protect my community and preserve life.” She said “I spent every day on the job trying to do that. I believe that evil only happens when good people remain silent.” Every good police officer should speak out against those that are doing wrong.
The consensus of the attendees was that the U.S. Department of Justice should assume better oversight of state and local law enforcement. Congressman John Lewis concluded the Town Hall with, “Never give up, never give in and never give out.”
On Friday, September 18, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch delivered her remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Judiciary Brain Trust: In Pursuit of Policing and Criminal Justice Reform. Congressman John Conyers is the Chairman. Kathleen Parks, Kedra King, Priscilla Johnson and me attended this powerful session. There was no doubt in my mind that President Obama made the right choice when he selected Loretta Lynch. She stated that “although the CBC was founded 40 years ago, we still have much work to do. We have to keep on marching. Attorney General Lynch stated that what hurts me so much is the mistrust between our law enforcement officers and our communities has deepened. At a time, when our communities need more than anything is the protection of the people who don’t have anyone else to call on. We have to be able to trust and rely upon those individuals to come when we call, and to look out for us, when they arrive.”
Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that “there was a time in the 1930s, in North Carolina where she is from where there was no justice in the dark of night on a rural road. No Miranda warnings. No procedural protections. None of those things we take for granted today. She stated that her grandfather told her that sometimes in order to preserve the fight for justice; you had to take action in the moment.”
Now, things are much better now, and we all get reminded that whenever we bring up these issues whether they are of race in general or police issues in particular, when you talk about the current pain that the minority community is feeling, we know things could be better. She stated that she had just left a meeting with the President of the United States. We have come so far, but we still have so far to go. Attorney General Lynch said that this issue of police brutality takes me back to the Civil Rights Movement—when people were marching and protesting. When you couldn’t vote, you couldn’t get a job; you couldn’t sit into a store or take a break and have a cup of coffee. No one wanted to believe, until the advent of television. Remember, the televised marches and the protests and when the world saw what was happening, that police we putting dogs on little children that fire hoses were used against young men and women — that galvanized the conscious of the world and gave the movement a momentum to make changes. Their actions gave us a Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and it gave us desegregation, to help us craft those strategies that our lawyers used before the Supreme Court. And now, we are in a similar moment. So it’s on us to seize this moment; to continue the debate. Because now the world knows, what we knew all along.
The Attorney General said, “We have to ensure now that our children who are growing up without the sense of connection, without the sense of protection and security that they are entitled to have and that we want them to have.” She stated that she is embarking on a six city community policing tour. She’s going to those cities where they have had very, very troubled and very challenging relationships between the police and the community. Either a lawsuit, a shooting incident, a consent decree – where the Department of Justice had to come in and exert a considerable amount of actual persuasion or actual litigation in order to manage unconstitutional policing practices. She reminded us that there are jurisdictions that have turned the corner. She stated that she went to Pittsburgh and talked to young people, high school students because they will tell you what is happening today. One young man described how he felt threatened by forces around him who had other agendas, who were trying to draw him into gang life and draw him into violence. He was deeply concerned that this was putting him in a crossfire. These are the type of conditions that our communities are facing that must be addressed at the state and local level.
Attorney General Lynch stated that her top priority as Attorney General—is dealing with the breakdown of trust between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to serve. She said that she has spent considerable time talking to both sides of the debate. There are many law enforcement officers who say to me, that I became a cop because someone helped me.
She stated that last year, the Justice Department launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. She remarked that “our Civil Rights Division” continues to work with police departments across the country to ensure constitutional policing is in their jurisdictions. She informed us that a number of police departments have told us that they are making the Ferguson Report required reading for their entire department. You have to not only acknowledge what happened before Michael Brown was killed, and be willing to look at the root causes of what was happening in Ferguson and move away from those root causes.
She remarked that her Office of Justice Programs is partnering with law enforcement agencies at the state and local level with grants, training and technical assistance. Through our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Ron Davis, Director has started to hire officers to train police officers, to promote safety and wellness and to support state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies as they implement President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
She concluded her speech with a discussion on the Smart on Crime Initiative which was launched by her predecessor and friend, Attorney General Eric Holder which took a visionary approach across the criminal justice system. Federal prosecutors are now using their resources to bring the most serious wrongdoers to justice, but using their resources to find more alternatives sentencing.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that we are all aware of Shelby County that took way a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5. An Act that has stood for 50 years and that worked. She ensured us that the Justice Department is e still working to ensure legislation is passed that fully restore the Voting Rights Act.
On Saturday, September 19, Kathleen Park and I attended the CBCF Prayer Breakfast. Approximately 3,000 people attended. Stellar Award-winning gospel singer, VaShawn Mitchell (“Nobody Greater”) performed, and the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, gave the keynote address. Rev. Dr. Otis Moss’s Message Title: “Accept Your Desert Assignment.” Scripture: Mark 1:1.
Moss connected the plight of the Black Lives Matter movement with the mission of a monumental Biblical figure. Rev. Moss expounded upon his point, saying John the Baptist was put in place to “design and create a ministry that will help the next generation. John comes in a period of history when the synagogue had been captured by Roman rule. Because previous to the period there was something known as the Maccabean Revolt. The Maccabean Revolt. The Maccabean Revolt was the revolt that pushed back those Persians that sought to destroy the Hebrew community,” said Moss. Later doing his remarks he explained that the High Priests at the time where in place to “preach about the personal, but not about the public,” which Rev. Moss considered to be “prophetic.”
As long as you are talking about the personal you’re alright. But if you start talking about poverty, if you start talking about mass incarceration, if you start talking about food deserts, the powers that be will attempt to ‘take you out.”
He went on to say that “there is a desert inside our communities from food, education, to mass incarceration and miseducation, and this is the “New Jim Crow.” Moss then quoted Michelle Alexander, acclaimed civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, saying that “It’s not because people have some cultural or moral or ethical deficit.” “We must understand that because of their proximity to poverty, there is limited access and availability and because of their racial identity, they end up being incarcerated because of their proximity to opportunity and limited opportunity, and so we must accept our desert assignments. God is calling on all of us to accept our desert assignment.
What really stood out was the necessity for us to be the “original” and not to be a copy of someone else. We all have been called, and we must be willing to “track to the river’s edge because somebody made a track to The River’s Edge for us.” He made a roll call of all of those before us back to creation. The Vice President, of the United States, Joe Biden was there with us. Oh, what a morning of rejoicing we had!
On that evening there was the black tie Phoenix Awards Dinner. President Barrack Obama was the keynote speaker. The CBCF announced that the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II was to be honored with the CBC Chair’s Award because he was instrumental in the release of the Wilmington ten, and has been a pillar of the national grassroots movement for justice for two decades. Rev. Dr. Barber continues to lead the fight for voter rights in North Carolina, health care reform, worker rights, immigrants’ rights and reparation for women survivors of Eugenics.
Fred Gray was honored with the ALC Co-Chair’s Award because of his legal work laid the groundwork for challenging racial discrimination in voting, housing, education, jury service, farm subsidies, medicine, and the judicial system.
Civil rights activist, Juanita Abernathy received the George Thomas “Mickey” Leland Award. Abernathy is the widow of Rev. Ralph Abernathy. She helped to organize and lead the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott in her home state of Alabama from 1955 to 1956. Abernathy continues to advance her husband’s legacy through lectures and service to civic and religious organizations.
Dr. Amelia Boynton Robinson was honored posthumously with the Harold Washington Award. Dr. Boynton Robinson was one of the organizers of the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The photo of her being beatened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge circulated around the world. In March, of this year, at the age of 103, she commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Selma marches by crossing the bridge hand-in-hand with President Obama. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. received the CBCF Chair Award for its leadership efforts to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy with a memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Alpha Phi Alpha, of which Dr. King was a member, is also being recognized or its national programs to mentor black children and mobilize black voters.
Proceeds from the Phoenix Awards dinner benefit the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s many programs and initiatives.
Gracie Lewis, Board Member
Kentucky Alliance Against Racist
& Political Repression