By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
Pastor, Greenleaf Christian Church
President, North Carolina Conference, NAACP
What does the election on November 2, 2010 mean for those of us who believe in a civil rights progressive agenda? Let's begin by saying what it does not mean. It does not mean we shall retreat from our agenda. It does not mean we shall stop pursuing full justice and equal opportunity for all. It does not mean we shall cease challenging discriminatory actions, racist language and public policies that create or provide cover for gross racial disparities. We shall not back off our challenge against policies to re-segregate and inequitable funding of our schools. We shall not turn back from our demands for a system of justice that is, indeed, just.
We shall increase our vigilant defense of the historic laws our legislature enacted to address some of the worst racial injustices in our courts. We shall never back away from our demand to strike from our law books the Jim Crow law G.S. 95-98 that prohibits collective bargaining for public employees. We shall fight harder for living wages. For more good jobs. For a much higher percentage of minority companies and workers doing business with, and employed by, the state. We shall never allow the misguided efforts to repeal the significant health care reform to succeed. We shall, in fact, work hard to help the millions of under-insured Americans get better coverage.
We note that some members of the Wake County School Board's anti-diversity caucus have already pronounced that the Nov. 2 election results gave them a mandate. No election gives you a mandate to violate the constitution. No election gives you a mandate to discriminate and resegregate our schools, harming our children. No election gives you a mandate to do wrong and injustice.
Now, more than ever, so much of our political process is for sale. If you have money, you can pay to play. Forget real debate. Forget working for the common good and promoting the general welfare. Just put your cash on the barrel and buy an election. Local races, school board and county boards, are easy to buy. According to Facing South, in 2010 three independent groups backed by Art Pope — Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC — poured $1.1 million into 21 state legislative races. Pope and his family personally invested another $232,000 into these races, spending more than $1.3 million to try to defeat candidates and incumbents who support the NAACP agenda. Mr. Pope paid to play and his record-setting investment helped to defeat 18 out of 21 candidates — a stunning 86% win rate. Democrats clearly won just one out of the 21 legislative seats targeted by Pope's $1.3 million. Two candidates in Senate Districts 44 and 45 who have supported some of our agenda were at one point clinging to leads of less than 100 votes.
Election results are a part of the ebb and flow of the long and tumultuous river of justice. We who believe in justice know every day is an election day. Every day, we elect to work in this river of justice — 365 days a year. It is as constant to us as our heart beats, our breaths, our love for our children. The results of this particular election, however, force us to address the shameless tactics of the ultra-conservatives and their secret funders to distort historical and current facts to create a climate of fear and disinformation. They repeatedly called the health care reform bill “socialism.” Untrue. They repeatedly called the job stimulus programs “welfare.” Untrue. They repeatedly created word and picture images of the U.S. president as an alien, a foreigner, a non-American. Untrue. According to polls, their big lie that the president raised our taxes has led two out of three Americans to believe he had.
The truth is that under this president, our tax rates are lower than they have been in 50 years. Much of their fear and disinformation campaign tapped into a continuing legacy of certain elements of white America's fear of black people still held by some people. Their advertiser “psychologists” know that when people are fearful, their lie-detecting abilities are compromised. So the ultra-right shamelessly repeated deliberate lies about the Racial Justice Act, while raising the spectra of black criminals walking around your neighborhood. They fanned falsehoods that the president is a Muslim and not a citizen.
Well-paid television and radio entertainers, whose principle vaudeville routines consist of yelling and demeaning “liberals” did not see fit to expose these lies. Instead, they allowed them to pour, unchecked, into our living rooms, in mailers and TV ads, rubbing raw the sores of slavery and Jim Crow in African American families. They portrayed us as ”other than American,” and then as part of the vaudeville routine; they gave Sarah Palin a mass audience to say: “It's time to reload.” They reminded us that the old race politics of the South, which some foolishly believed had been thrown into the dumpster of history, were readily retrieved, dipped in fresh slime, and shown again without the twinge of shame by the millionaires who funded them. Many of my black friends turned off their televisions during the last month, afraid they would lose both their own tempers and their children's faith in the American dream.
The losers from this mean cacophony of racist images and noises, however, are not confined to just people of color and our children. All Americans are the less for it. Permitting the use of racially discriminatory images and phrases over and over again — blasting into our living rooms three and four times an hour without any qualifications or definitions of the racial obscenities — makes us all — brown, white and black — less human and less smart. Our news media, what is left of it, were not able to put their fire close to the feet of the ultra-conservatives who hijacked Mr. Lincoln's party and turned it into the not-so-grand new party for the rich.
But all the shame should not be confined to the openly racist appeals of the ultra-conservatives. There is enough shame to share with what we in the Justice Movement call October Democrats. They tut-tutted the president's programs for 20 months instead of working to win broader support for them. And then in his 21st month in office, October, they had the nerve to tell him what he now must do ... even before the polls closed. Their prescription, dressed in cute phrases and one-liners, was always the same: “Move to the center.” “Stop trying to pass programs that help achieve health care, employment, good schools, and decent housing for everyone.” “Don't worry about poor people and working people.” “Continue the tax breaks for the rich.” How much closer to the center can the president move? Like Sisyphus in the Greek myth, condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll back to the bottom to push it up again, our president has been condemned by many to push the rock of race up the long, steep hill. This is a burden no other president has ever had to bear. Just when it seems he is at the top, it rolls back down and he must get behind it again. And all the while the president shoulders the rock of race, he must remain even-tempered, generous, courteous, compromising, amenable, and gracious.
October Democrats, who split their tickets, betrayed their affiliated party. The minute their betrayal was announced, they were ready with instant analysis and advice for the president and the party they had betrayed. Turn right, they advised. Go to the center. The problem, my friends, is not about turning to the right, the left, or toward the center. The problem is to stay centered on justice for all. To stay centered on equal opportunity for all. To stay centered on a public policy that puts those on the bottom first, making sure they enjoy the same rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as those on the top. The president does not need advice from his October friends – he needs help!
Our instant replay Republican friends, who repeatedly congratulated themselves after winning control of our state legislature for the first time since 1898, also need a quick lesson in history. One hundred and twelve years ago, it was a very different Republican Party than the one paying for racist attack fliers and television ads this year. Most striking, in 1898, the GOP wasn't virtually lily-white. In 1898 it was Mr. Lincoln's Grand Old Party — a party of freed men who had made an unbeatable fusion alliance with poor and working white men of North Carolina. It was the home of every anti-racist, pro-diversity, pro-civil rights, and pro-justice advocate in the state. The Republican Party of 1898 would cry “For Shame ... For Shame” on the people who have seized Mr. Lincoln's party and use racist lies to defeat and split people along racial lines. In 1898 Dixie Democrats used racist cartoons, much like those mailed by the Dixie Republicans of today, with the same ugly goal: to rent asunder the growing fusion alliance of black and white people with common interests. After several months of racist images had weakened the alliance, the Dixie Democrats led a terrorist attack on November 10, 1898 in Wilmington, N.C., killing scores of African Americans and banishing whites and blacks who dared to make common cause against the rich bankers and corporations who controlled the Democratic Party.
Many of us remember the beginnings of a similar fusion movement in the mid-1960's that led to the passage of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts. More remember the birth of the modern racialized conservative movement in the South, encouraged by Richard Nixon's racist “Southern Strategy.” His tactics, including popularizing slogans like “forced busing” and “neighborhood schools” help transform a majority of white people whose families had voted “Democrat” for generations into “Republicans.” It is yet to be seen how today's Republicans will govern. But if their shameless use of racialized campaign tactics is any indication, we are in for trouble. If their slogans about “Take Back America” are code words for pursuing regressive public policy that undermines civil rights laws, health care reform, and needed services that protect the vulnerable, we are on a downward trajectory that must be challenged. If their Willie Horton images continue, or their calls to overturn the 14th Amendment persists, we can expect an ugly, racist outpouring of invective from them against black political leaders from the white House to the state houses in the coming months.
Perhaps the most significant historical facts of the Nov. 2 election are negatives. There will be no African American committee chairs in either the North Carolina House or Senate in January 2011. There will be no African Americans participating in the important caucus meetings where critical legislative priorities are debated. Similarly, in the U.S. House, there will be no African Americans as committee chairs. The Republican Party will be virtually all-white. The U.S. Senate will have no African American member. The virtually all-white Tea Party has created a white dinosaur, in a society that will soon be more non-white than white.
We are not deterred. We have seen worst backlashes before. Our ancestors felt the real lash on their backs, and held onto their dignity and dream. Our great grandparents saw their efforts to reunite the human race from 1865-1898 torn asunder by Dixie Democratic terrorists and held on. Our grandparents lived through Jim Crow laws cascading from the all-white legislatures for three score years. Our people have resisted lynchings, murders, night terrorists, dogs, and water hoses, and still we hold on. Our people, led by the mighty NAACP, have won victory after victory in the struggle to dismantle the system of racism that has cursed America since its birth in 1776.
So the real meaning of November 2, 2010 is simple. We pick up the plow and start down another long row in the field of justice. The struggle continues. Our moral positions remain. We will continue to rebuild the most powerful and diverse social movement in history. It started with us. We can still and must still make our country stronger, our state better, and our democracy more inclusive. The forces of division may be crowing after Nov. 2, but we will never turn back.