NAACP President Ben Jealous opening keynote address at Creating Change

NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous delivered the opening keynote speech at the National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change last night.

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Good evening.

I am proud to stand here today with my brothers and sisters in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

As some of you may know, the struggle for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender equality is near and dear to my heart – my brother was a transgender youth who was faced discrimination and bigotry.

I stand before you today as an individual with a deeply vested interest in this movement, but also as the leader of an organization with strong connections to the fight for LGBT rights.

In the past few years this Association has experienced a renaissance. As we have expanded our staff and program areas, we have also sought to more fully embrace the diversity within our own ranks.

In Mississippi, the Jackson State University NAACP elected a 30-year old white man. A chapter in New Jersey chose a Honduran immigrant as their leader. The Worcester NAACP chapter recently reopened after five years of inactivity. They elected as their President a 28-year old gay, black, professor.

Tomorrow’s NAACP leaders will be inspired not only by the words of Dr. King, and by the ongoing fight to end racial profiling, but also by our work to defend the rights of immigrants, champion religious tolerance and help stop the bullying of LGBT youth. The more we honor and embrace the diversity in all our communities the more we will all succeed.

But this striving for inclusion is not new. The NAACP and the LGBT movement have fought together for social justice since Bayard Rustin planned the March on Washington in 1963. He was a black gay hero who wrote the textbook on mobilizing the masses for jobs and freedom.

It was in the spirit of Rustin that we organized the One Nation Working Together coalition – the most inclusive and affirming march for jobs and justice that our nation’s capitol has ever seen.

The coalition was effective not in spite of the diversity of organizations involved, but because of it.

Last year during our annual convention, we held the first-ever NAACP town hall meeting to discuss LGBT rights. We had a challenging but constructive conversation about gay, lesbian and transgender issues in the black community. I look forward to continuing these productive conversations for years to come.

Members of the Task Force and the NAACP are standing shoulder to shoulder here in Baltimore fighting for marriage equality in this state.  Just as they did in California, when the NAACP state conference opposed Proposition 8 and later joined a lawsuit to overturn it. Just as they are standing shoulder to shoulder in North Carolina, where our state conference has passionately fought an amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Tonight I want to share my own personal story about making the choice at a young age that the best antidote is hatred.

I was born in the village of Carmel, CA.  In that one square mile hamlet, there was one other black boy we knew who was my age.  His name is Jason.  He lived across the street.

His mom was my mom’s best friend. His sister was my sister’s best friend. And from the age of six months on, he has been my best friend. He truly is my brother in every way except by birth and since the age of four “brother” has been the only word we have used to describe our bond.   Part of being brothers has always been our willingness to adopt each other’s fight as our own.

At first, our fight was clearly our fight. When we moved two towns over, the clerk at the five and dime chaperoned us through every aisle of the store as white friends of ours ran in and out at will.

We knew it was because we were black and therefore different and targets for discrimination.

A few years later, Jason’s preference for wigs, dresses, and make-up became an even bigger issue with our peers.  We had confronted racial bullying together.  That was expected, and sometimes our white friends would come to our defense.

But this time, some suggested that I should let their hate be his fight. At that moment, on that playground, I made a choice: if you pick a fight with my brother– whether it is because you say we ain’t like you or he ain’t like us– you have picked a fight with me.

These are the realities that pundits ignore when they seek to stereotype the black community, black leadership, or black clergy on the issue of LBGT equality.

This is why I was proud that the NAACP advocated for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act. Before that act, a hate crime was only a hate crime if the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. But oppression is oppression is oppression. Hatred is hatred. Now, all hate crimes are protected and there are resources to make sure the law is enforced.

And this is the conviction that led me to devote my life to civil rights and social justice. I believe that it is crucial that the LGBT community is fully engaged in fighting against all forms of profiling.

Unfortunately, the national media tends to exaggerate divisions between civil rights and LGBT institutions. This tendency is what caused Bayard Rustin to remain a marginalized figure in the mainstream history of the civil rights movement, since a powerful gay black man just didn’t fit the narrative.

This tendency is what caused the media to blame the African American community for Proposition 8’s success in California. Never mind that the California NAACP State Conference was on the front line. Never mind that when the amendment went to court, the national NAACP signed onto the lawsuit, because we will never let any court be goaded into stripping any group of a right that that court has said is fundamental.

But more damaging than the media’s failure to recognize our common struggles is our own failure to come together on issues of common interest.

For 103 years, the NAACP and our diverse allies have run with the baton first set in motion by the American Revolution. America moves closer to being America when we do three things:

  • Expand access to quality education for all
  • Expand access to financial opportunity for all
  • And expand access to the ballot box and to offices of political power for all.

As we expand each of these, our nation is closer to its own ideals. As we allow any of these to be attacked and degraded, we permit the very essence of our nation is attacked and degraded.

As Fredrick Douglas observed in his speech “Our Composite Nationality”: every nation has a destiny, a destiny which is defined by character, and a character which is usually defined by its geography.  Our nation, bordered by two nations and situated between two oceans is called to be the perfect example of human unity the world has ever seen.

Our work, the work of the civil and human rights movement is to empower America to be America … to be the most perfect example of human unity the world has ever seen.

That is why whether a child is bullied by a student because of her sexual orientation or gender identity or mistreated by a teacher or principal because of his race, the NAACP and the Task Force must stand up together. Because no child– who is mistreated at school because of what they are –has fair access to a high quality education.

That is why whether it is fighting to end discrimination against LBGT people at work or black people at the bank, the NAACP and the Task Force must stand strong together.  Because when you or your community is the target of any “ism” in the marketplace, ending discrimination is as important as job creation.  And ending the virus of hatred anywhere requires ending it everywhere.

And that is why, in this moment when our nation is in the midst of the greatest wave of voter suppression legislation since before the creation of the NAACP, we must rise up together to beat it back and get America moving toward the future again.

In 2011 alone, more than 30 states legislatures introduced legislation that would suppress the vote.

This suppression comes in the form of photo ID bills, limits on voter registration, limits on early voting, and ex-felon disenfranchisement. And it consistently targets the heart of the progressive electorate. People of color, students, blue collar workers, women, the elderly, and disabled Americans.

People don’t realize that many of these voter suppression bills do not simply require identification to vote-they require that a copy of your driver’s license be on file at the elections office in order for you to register.

I don’t know how many of you have worked on a registration drive before. If you have, you know it can be hard work. Imagine now that your task included dragging a photocopier behind you as you knocked on doors or stood in front of the Safeway. It’s virtually impossible.

Other states are imposing fines on groups or organizations who don’t return voter registration forms to the state within 48 hours. Already major organizations have decided that they simply cannot conduct voter registration drives in restrictive states like Florida. In swing states like Florida.

The moneyed interests behind these laws would have you believe that they are a rational response to voter fraud. (The fact is that more people have claimed to see a UFO than to have witnessed a case of voter fraud.)

This attack may not be a rational response to voter fraud, but it is fueled by very rational interest.

Supporters of voter suppression responding to the growing diversity in this country, and the political power of this new population. They are afraid of the more inclusive America that the future holds.

And they know that coming after your right to vote is the first step to coming after so many of your other rights. That includes the right of workers to organize; the right of a woman to make decisions about her body; the right to walk down the street without fear of being harassed for papers; the right to stand alongside your loved one in his hospital room; the right to be yourself at work.

Jim Crow started with voter suppression. This is why the “Southern Strategy” started with voter suppression. And this is why in this moment; when so many of our rights are under attack in so many places all at once, anti-civil rights, anti-human rights extremists are seeking to suppress our vote so that they can suppress our other rights.

We have had one major victory already. The Department of Justice rejected South Carolina’s proposed photo ID bill because it would have disproportionately disenfranchised African American voters. Last week Attorney General Eric Holder joined me in South Carolina and promised to protect the vote against overt and subtle forms of discrimination.

We are focused on protecting the vote but also on continuing GOTV and voter registration efforts. The heart of the civil rights movement has always been empowering future generations to move beyond the petty divisions of the past.

Dr. King said that “Voting is the foundation stone for political action.” We will do all we can to protect the right to vote so that we can protect our other rights. Not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community as well.

And we must do this with vigor and urgency or we risk losing all that we have gained and all that we stand gain.

Because as I stand here today those of us who stand for freedom, justice and equality are in the midst of an epic battle against those who wish to redefine the moral center of our county.

We are in a battle with those who seem more inspired by our nations dim past that its inspired future.

And although these forces are equipped with limitless resources, the ability to influence our elections with no transparency, unedited mass media echo chambers, and even lies-lies created to hurl fear and hate-often where there is despair and uncertainty.

We can never allow ourselves to be discouraged, distracted or divided.

Because history has taught us that we can never win the battle for justice, equality, and freedom when we our soldiers are defined and limited by our individual silos.   But that we can only emerge victorious when we unite for the common good of all.   We emerge victorious, when we build large diverse coalitions who dare to dream bold dreams and win big victories.

So let us move forward in unity and with the collective vision and determination to build the America that we dream for all of her children.

An America where everyone can get a good job,

And where everyone can obtain a quality education.

An America where everyone has access to health care and communities with clean air and water.

An America in which opportunities are afforded to all.

And most importantly, an America in which no a person’s race, creed, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity— she or he can live in a country free of discrimination—where her or his basic human rights and dignity are respected.

As I close and take my seat, let us all recall the words of the late great Harvey Milk-who said “It takes no compromising to give people their rights. It takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no survey to remove repressions.”

Let us remember those words and carry them forward in our fight to justice, equality, and freedom.

Thank you and God Bless