Chairman Leon W. Russell Gives Opening Mass Meeting Speech at 113th NAACP National Convention
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chast'ning rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet, with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to a place for which our fathers sighed.
We have come
Over a way that with tears have been watered
We have come treading our path
Through the blood of the
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on our way
Thou who has by thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
The words of James Weldon Johnson have never seemed as prescient as they do today. 246 years into our nation's journey, it's effort, if you will, to ensure a more perfect union; it often seems that we are moving in reverse, retracing our steps over that path covered with the blood of our slaughtered predecessors. In truth, as we work to achieve the vision and the mission of the national association for the advancement of colored people – the NAACP, it is fact that, as we fight to secure the inclusion of all those who inhabit and contribute to this nation, we are at the same time, compelled to defend the progress made since the framers set pen to paper on July 4th, 1776.
Today, July 17th, 2022, we find ourselves locked in a battle with the old, ever-present threat of white supremacy, white nationalism, and racism. Threats to the very existence of our nation as we know it and, for this old ship of zion, a direct challenge to the vision and mission, our founders set forth 113 years ago.
Our founders established NAACP's vision to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights and there is no racial hatred or racial discrimination.
They declared that the mission of this organization is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.
We have updated the vision to state clearly that we, the NAACP, envision an inclusive community rooted in liberation, where all persons can exercise their civil and human rights without discrimination.
Our restated mission statement is to achieve equity, political rights, and social inclusion by advancing policies and practices that expand human and civil rights, eliminate discrimination and accelerate the well-being, education, and economic security of black people and all persons of color.
The modernized version lays out more directly the current status of our people and our nation. It recognizes that we must be obvious about the challenge to create an inclusive society and the work necessary to achieve that hoped-for ideal.
Tonight, I have come to Atlantic City recalling the words of our sister in the movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, to paraphrase, we are still sick and tired of being sick and tired. We have fought too long, bled too much, seen too many die, to let our nation carry us back to that place where hope unborn had died.
We are here tonight to declare that though our feet are weary, we will march on until victory is won.
NAACP; this is power!
We may be weary, but we will not let anyone turn us around. We have power, the vote, combined with an organized cadre of foot soldiers committed to carry out that mission. We will use that power to ensure that victory over supremacy will be achieved and that the darkness of hate will be replaced by the bright light of hope's new day.
NAACP, we are here, we have a voice and we will use it. This is power and in 2022, NAACP units working together will illuminate the way for our nation's forward march to that inclusive community that we know this nation can be.
This is power!
Good evening NAACP.
To all of you, delegates, observers, friends, and those watching remotely,
Welcome to the 113th annual convention of the national association for the advancement of colored people. Welcome to Atlantic City, 54 years after we last met here in 1968, and on behalf of the national board of directors, welcome to our new day begun.
I want to thank New Jersey State Conference president Richard Smith for that gracious introduction. As host state president and a member of the national board, Richard has been a relentless champion for this convention. Thank you, Richard, and thanks to the new jersey team for an outstanding effort.
Let me acknowledge the members of the national board of directors, the members of the NAACP foundation board of trustees, and the staff of your Association, who have all worked tirelessly to ensure the success of this convention. After two and a half years of virtual meetings, we are all glad to be in one place, safely gathered, committed to the health and safety of each other, to recharge, energize and mobilize each of our units: adult branches; youth councils; high school chapters; college chapters; young adult units and prison branches to see the power in all of our communities and to use that power to work our mission and make the vision a reality.
We must all be mindful of the fact that at its core, our work is to foster the creation of public policy that allows all of us to live equitably in thriving communities where no one is considered "the other" and where opportunity is not subject to barriers created by fear, hatred, or someone's fear of a loss of some self-anointed dominance.
Our work is rooted in a fervent belief in racial equity, understanding of and participation in civic engagement; and the creation of supportive policies and institutions that benefit any and all marginalized people.
In 2022, we are faced with numerous challenges to the creation of an equitable society. Clearly, tonight our country faces numerous challenges to the democratic foundation of our republic. When I use the term democratic, I am talking about a system of representative government based on the expressed will of the people through our historic electoral process. I am not talking about a political party. The threat to democracy is a clear and present danger. Naacp, we have been and continue to be the conscience of this nation, time and again raising our voices to influence the nation to follow the proper course. We are here in Atlantic City tonight to again shine a light on issues that must prick the conscience of the entire nation.
First and foremost, we must confront the twin challenges of hate and fear. We cannot allow hatred and its sibling, fear, to be the driving force in the development of public policy. Those who fear a full and accurate account of our nation's history cannot be allowed to continue to be the proponents of and the creators of policies that deny the truth of our development as a nation. We can not and will not shy away from a truthful account of that history in our schools, in our textbooks or in our legislative halls. Hate and fear, have been used to foster the myth of otherism and to convince some that they are victims of some orchestrated effort to replace them. We are obliged to organize ourselves to ensure that our voices are heard at all levels of the policy-making arena. We can ensure our place at the policy-making table by fully participating in the political process.
To paraphrase Shirley Chisholm, if they don't provide a seat at the table, we will bring a folding chair. That folding chair is our voice and our vote. Power is using that vote to make a difference.
In years past, we in the black community became very accomplished at recognizing the tactic utilized by slaveholders to keep our ancestors from coming together in their own interests. That tactic of divide and conquer, created by plantation owner willie lynch, is alive and well today. It is alive in our communities and unfortunately, it is alive in too many NAACP units. It's not just NAACP units or the black community where we feel the tool of willie lynch today. It is used to keep too many groups divided, whether by race, gender or orientation or religion or place of origin, or any other doorway that allows any group of people to be characterized as the other.
We see this tactic at work when we hear pundits and some folks in leadership positions say "well, we voted in 2020 and nothing has changed, so why vote in 2022 or why even think about voting in 2024. We must use our power to inform and educate; in order to help our community understand that societal change is a long game. You can't make one play and think you have overcome. Power is recognizing that advancement can be and in most instances incremental; a step-by-step process.
Power is a commitment to play the full game using every tool in our arsenal. Power is recognition that, when we fight, we win.
This divide and conquer offensive is used to keep a relatively small minority of people in power. Please note, that when I say minority, I am speaking numerically. I would remind this audience that the drafters of the foundational documents of this nation, created visionary work, making universal promises to all who would become a part of this new nation, but simultaneously crafted the documents so as to maintain power in the hands of a small band of property holding elites. That property included land and other human beings. They had a vision for the nation that was tangled in their own vested interest.
Many people, organizations, and individuals have worked for 246 years to perfect this union. Our association has been in the vanguard of that effort for the last 113 years. Our history in this effort reflects the power of an organized effort. When we fight together for justice and equity, we win. It does not always happen overnight, but commitment and persistence are power and ultimately our efforts have made a difference.
Our challenge this evening is to recognize that our effort to achieve a society that reflects equity of rights and inclusion at all levels requires us to rebuff the Willie Lynch's of 2022. If we are to ensure the well-being, education, and economic security of black people and all persons of color, then we are obliged to work with other like-minded individuals and organizations to achieve those goals.
In biblical terms, we must acknowledge that we are our brother's and sister's keeper. We are obliged to work together to ensure that all parts of society have equitable opportunities to grow and thrive. We have to determine that we will observe the golden rule and truly do unto others as we would have done unto ourselves. This must not be a simple religious trope. It must be viewed and recognized as a societal necessity.
Frederick Douglass long ago reminded us that "where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither person nor property will be safe."
From this perspective, I must directly address each of us as advocates of and for our own communities. No matter whether our communities are large or small, urban or rural, we must recognize and begin to work to end the number one public health crisis in our nation. That crisis is violence. Yes, I said violence. I do not minimize the impact of the covid pandemic, however, violence in our communities is killing us. It is depriving us of the benefit of the promise of those, young and old, who are being taken away by senseless, reckless, and hate filled carnage. That carnage comes in the form of mass shootings by individuals consumed by hate and susceptible to lies promulgated by power-hungry fools. That carnage too often comes at the hands of public servants, sworn to protect and defend those very communities.
We, the NAACP, are obligated by our vision and mission to advocate for public policies that put an end to carnage perpetrated by police officers and by those young and delusional individuals who carry grudges against people they don't even know. Gun violence has to stop and the NAACP must be a voice at the table advocating for policies to end it.
That said, the NAACP must be a voice in our own communities working to end the senseless slaughter of us, by us. We cannot decry violence perpetrated by others, without addressing the damage done in our communities by members of our own neighborhoods on a daily basis. As I speak this evening, over 350 mass shootings will have occurred since January 1, 2022. A mass shooting is defined as an incident where a minimum of four people are hit with gunfire. As I speak, a black family in too many communities represented in this hall tonight will have mourned a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, sister, or brother died at the hands of someone from across the street, down the block or the next street over. The person taking the life looks like us and too often has the same life experience as us. Most times it doesn't even make the news.
NAACP, we must work to end violence, full stop. We must recognize that the presence of guns in our community is a clear and present danger that must be eliminated. We must use our vote, our power, to make a public policy change that ensures there are real educational and employment opportunities. Real access to participation in the economic life of our communities is a part of the solution. We see, all too well, the outcome when there is hopelessness that has us devaluing ourselves and others. We must address the root in order to change the outcome.
I challenge everyone who hears my voice this evening to commit yourself to be your brother and sister's keeper, rather than their killer. The answer to the public health crisis created by guns in our communities is not more guns. We will not stop the killing until we deal with the issues that have created the environment that fosters that violence. A first step is to limit the availability of guns. We can do that when we work together with others who are committed to saving rather than taking lives.
Violence is certainly a primary area where we have to address public policy, but by no means is it the only area our advocacy efforts must address.
Those who entered this hall today had to show proof of your covid vaccination status and covid testing will be available throughout this convention. This is evidence of our unequivocal commitment to treat others as we want to be treated and to make sacrifices for the health and safety of our brothers and sisters. Covid is real. If we fail to protect ourselves, then we endanger the lives of everyone around us and everyone we come into contact with. We take those precautions here at this convention and we strongly advocate that all of us do the same, in the communities we represent.
We are adamantly opposed to the efforts of policymakers across this country who have determined that they will not legislate programs and policies that support the health and welfare of everyone in our communities, but instead, appear hell bent on regulating what happens in a uterus or someone else relationships. We reject public policy that requires a child to be born, then fails to provide adequate, nutrition or housing, or education for that same child. I challenge every unit represented in this audience to be a voice for a woman's right to choose, for a family's right to do what is best for them.
It is not just the fact that the supreme court has invalidated the previously constitutionally protected right of women to make their own choices about their own health care that we must stand against. The NAACP must be vigilant and vocal about the potential threat to other constitutional protections that are now targets for those who object to an inclusive nation. Whether you are gay or straight, whether you or someone in your family is part of an interracial marriage and especially if you are part of a group of people who were previously denied the right to vote because of the color of your skin, your gender or your national origin, your constitutional rights may be in peril. We have the power to prevent any further erosion of constitutional rights.
You can vote. You can choose who represents you. You can determine who will make law, who will interpret the law and who will carry out those laws.
You have a voice, raise it. You have a vote, use it.
This is your power.
NAACP, lift our voice. This is power.
Since 1909, the NAACP has championed and fought for equal access to a high-quality public education for all children. Tonight, books are being banned. Tonight, public policymakers are rewriting the history of our nation. They want to return to a time when we, as a people, as a part of this nation were thought of as invisible. We were not included in textbooks and our contributions were neither acknowledged, nor taught. Today, we are told that our sacrifices, cannot be acknowledged in the educational arena because it might upset children or make them feel ashamed. So rather than acknowledge, own and learn from our history as a nation, public policy would have us remove any references to the past from the educational process. We have even seen instances where slavery is being redefined as a misunderstanding in the context of how markets developed over the last 400 years. It was a misunderstood form of immigration.
We have the power to stand against this effort. We can become policymakers and we can vote to ensure that people committed to the truth about our history and learning from that same history are put in office so that we do not repeat it.
Knowledge is power. We have that knowledge, NAACP.
As we look around us and think about the vision and mission of our NAACP, we understand that spreading knowledge and learning from our past, can and will, if used properly, lead to a better future. We can all benefit from an economy that understands that we are all contributors to and beneficiaries of a strong and vibrant inclusive economy. We are all consumers, but we all have the ability to add value and worth to our national economy if there is access to opportunity and discrimination is eliminated. This is our collective challenge. We have to create equity in this economic system. We do that by collectively demanding a place at the table and an opportunity to make the system work for all of us.
There is any number of important initiatives that the NAACP is obliged to engage on as we seek to fulfill our founders' dream of making this nation live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. The last area of concern I will touch on this evening must be addressed. It is one that is relatively new within the context of our nation's 246 year history. However, if we fail to effectively deal with climate change and its impacts, it is questionable whether we will have another two and a half centuries on this planet, as we know it. I am mindful that there are climate change deniers in our community and in the very halls of government and I also understand that some in our own community don't see climate change as a civil rights issue or even a black folks issue. It is time for us to say loudly and advocate strongly that our healthy existence as a people, as a community, and as a world is absolutely dependent on our effectiveness as advocates for environmental justice and environmental reform. Whether we are concerned about asthma or cancer or if we feel the imminent effects of sea level rise while the level of potable water supplies to our largest cities is imperiled, we have to educate and mobilize the black community to fight to save our environment and to work to stop the process of environmental degradation. We must raise our collective voices once again in support of a healthy planet, supporting healthy communities. We have a voice and we have a vote. Those are power. We must employ them in defense of our own continued existence.
Ultimately, it is incumbent upon all of us to recognize that we have individual power that can be used for good or bad within our own lives, however, our challenge is to understand that the success of the great experiment that we know as the United States of America is to create a society where all of us, working together, can assure the mutual success of all parts of society. We are not here to create a vessel that only serves a small segment of people to the detriment of the rest of society.
Our power is in working together to create a society in which a rising tide truly lifts all boats because we have worked together to ensure that all of us have a boat to be lifted. Put another way, power is a commitment to equity for all and not the curse that some people would pronounce, that others will have to sink or swim.
We are the national association for the advancement of colored people. We are the nation's most influential civil rights and social justice organization. We are committed to working together to create equity, political rights, and social inclusion by advancing public policies and practices that expand human and civil rights. We will work to eliminate discrimination and accelerate the well-being, education, and economic security of black people and all persons of color.
NAACP: this is power!
NAACP, working together, we are power!
Tonight, I ask you to recognize the power you have as a member of the NAACP, a unit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the conscience of this nation. Will we stand together tonight? Will we stand together with other civil rights organizations? Will we stand together with members of the divine nine to change public policy to work on behalf of all Americans? Will you stand with nobles of the ancient Egyptian Arabic order and nobles of the mystic shrine to ensure that every person in our communities across the nation is aware of the importance of the issues we discuss at this convention? Will you stand with organized labor and the young people of this country to vote to change the face of policy making in this country?
Our charge tonight is to stand up and recognize our power. Will you stand up?
NAACP this is power!
NAACP – this is power!
There is power in those five letters, recognize it. Learn to use it.
This is power!
Power to the people – power to our communities.