Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks during the opening session of the Rainbow PUSHÂ Coalition 39th Annual Conference with NAACP President Ben Jealous, Professor Mark Lamont Hill, Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) and U.S. Senator Roland Burris (D-IL).
Rev. Jesse Jackson and National Leaders Address the State of Civil Rights while honoring the Past, and Moving Forward on Jobs, Justice and Education
The state of civil rights was the focus of the 39th annual conference of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Citizen Education Fund which was held June 12--16 at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago. The conference, themed "A More Perfect Union--The State of Civil Rights", focused on leveling the playing field for women, minorities and the underserved through the enforcement of civil rights laws, a commitment to economic justice, and the pursuit of diversity and inclusion.
From the reunion picnic at the historic Rainbow PUSH Hyde Park headquarters on Saturday, to the closing women's luncheon on Wednesday, the conference featured a sharp focus on today's issues mixed with a sense of history as participants gathered from across the country.
Conference speakers included Obama administration members U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education Robert Shireman. Other speakers and panelists included: Illinois States Attorney Lisa Madigan; Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA); Illinois Senator Roland Burris; Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL); NAACP President Ben Jealous; Judge Greg Mathis; Rev. Otis Moss, Jr.; educational policy specialist Dr. Diane Ravitch; Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president, Bennett College for Women; and athletes such as NBA Hall of Fame member Isiah Thomas and former MLB player Garry Maddox.
Some of the policy positions endorsed during the conference include: retroactive forgiveness of student loans; shareholder activism to increase corporate diversity and inclusion; and mortgage loan principal reduction to stave off home foreclosures.
The conference began with Rev. Jackson, Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights CEO Barbara Arnwine, NAACP President Ben Jealous, Senator Roland Burris (D-IL), Congressmen Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL), Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Ricardo Meza, regional counsel of MALDEF weighing in on the state of civil rights in urban America. Rainbow PUSH takes the position that economic progress is not possible without civil rights enforcement and reasonable regulation.
"We are no longer facing horizontal inequality where blacks and whites are not able to share the same drinking fountains and lunch counters," said Rev. Jackson. "Today we are seeing vertical inequality. We see disparities in healthcare and an attack on urban centers. Today we are freer but still unequal."
"We're fighting two battles right now . . . to rescue main street and rebuild back street. Most of our cities were already in a state of recession before the recession," Jealous said. "The federal government must be forced to make a decision publicly on whether or not [budget] deficits are more destructive than massive joblessness."
The panel outlined the challenges we still face in enforcing laws against predatory lending, racial and employment discrimination and voting rights infringement. Senator Burris indicated that much progressive legislation gets bogged down in the U.S. Senate and encouraged active voter participation in the fall 2010 elections.
In an afternoon session on education, educational policy specialist Dr. Diane Ravitch wove an intricate picture of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" agenda and the attempt to undermine public education by expanding charter schools across the nation. She also criticized Secretary of Education Duncan's "Race to the Top" for continuing along the same path.
Students rallied for student loan debt relief at a town hall meeting during day two of the conference. Students and panelists raised questions and shared ideas about making college more affordable and more accessible.
The keynote speaker, Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education Robert Shireman, answered questions and explained the Obama administration's recent changes to the student aid process and student loan repayment policies.
"We have four points of concern," said Bradley Akuburio, a junior from Northwestern University. "We need the interest rates on students loans reduced. We need protection from tuition hikes. We need protection from the effects of state budget cuts and we need jobs after we graduate so we are able to repay our student loans."
The president of Bennett College for Women, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, said higher education is in a state of emergency.
"We have to combat the current mindset of our nation," she said. "We have bailed out the banks but our students have not seen that same kind of relief. It is time to invest in education again like we did when were competing with the Russians during the "Sputnik era".
On Monday at the conference, KFC President Roger Eaton announced a renewed commitment to inclusion and diversity. The company has committed to increasing the number of franchise minority-owned restaurants by 33% by the year 2016; establishing a minority capital program to recruit and aid prospective minority franchisees; and partnering with minority-owned marketing firms to develop marketing plans to best reach minority customers and to commit up to 10% of KFC's national media funds to the effort.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) was present for the announcement and connected the lack of access to capital for women and minorities to huge wealth disparities between races.
"An Institute on Assets and Social Policy study found that middle-income white families hold many more assets (stocks, bonds, business interests, real estate other than primary residence) than do high-income black families and that many black families hold more debt than assets, and at least 25 percent of black families have no assets to turn to in times of economic hardship," she stated. "It is time for us to renew our efforts to bring about opportunities for women and minorities. Over the past 10 years we have dropped the ball. We need to be making announcements similar to this one once or twice a week. I am pleased with KFC and Roger Eaton because he has set specific targets that can make a difference."
Also, Congresswoman Waters, recently criticized by the Wall Street Journal for her efforts to include an Office of Minority Affairs in the final version of financial reform legislation, called for support for the Office to ensure diversity and inclusion in the work of federal agencies. She is on the conference committee negotiating the final version of the Finance Reform Bill.
At the annual scholarship gala, PUSH Excel, the affiliate organization of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition that focuses on education, awarded $375,000 in scholarships to 225 deserving students from across the nation.
During the gala, PUSH Excel also honored freedom fighters who helped pave the way for integration, equality, respect and freedom. Those honored included: the Greensboro 4; Earnest Green, the first of the Little Rock 9 to graduate from Central High School; the Greenville 8; Congressman John Lewis; Julian Bond; and Dr. Julius Garvey and Marcus Garvey Jr., sons of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. These freedom fighters received the prestigious "Legend Award." The Legend Award is presented to individuals who, in the course of their lives, have made a contribution to society that is not only worthy of praise but also worthy of emulation. They are honored for engaging in more than simply charitable actions that stir the heart; but actual behavior that challenges others to change the conditions of their own lives as well.
As part of the Greenville 8, Rev. Jackson was arrested for the first time 50 years ago as a college freshman trying to use a public library in his hometown of Greenville, SC. At the gala, dancers portrayed the student library integration demonstration in Greenville and an on-stage conversation was presented featuring Rev. Jackson's classmates and Rev. James Hall who orchestrated the library sit-in that resulted in the arrest.
Speaking for the Greensboro 4, Franklin McCain explained why he and three friends decided to sit at a whites-only lunch counter in North Carolina: "Our courage and convictions ran deep. We were angry. Our parents faced segregation, now we were facing segregation and it was time we stood up for something that mattered. We were just ordinary people but this was about dignity and respect."
Also during the conference, Rev. Jackson announced a trip to New Orleans as he stood with fishermen from the Gulf Coast whose businesses have been devastated by the Gulf Coast oil spill.
"As residents of the Gulf Coast, many of us have not fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina and other storms," said Byron Encalade, president of the Louisiana Oysterman Association. "Since the BP drilling disaster, people in the fishing and maritime communities from Florida to Texas have received misleading, factually inaccurate, and sometimes deceptive information."
Commercial fishermen, seafood workers and residents of maritime communities on the Gulf are demanding that BP be held responsible and accountable; proper oversight from the President and Congress; immediate compensation; forbearance of loan repayments; a renewed priority on local communities; and for all information and documents to be translated for multicultural maritime communities.
The annual labor breakfast attracted a healthy contingent of union members who gathered afterwards at a plenary session to discuss the state of public mass transportation in urban communities. Public transportation has been a major thrust this year for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Rev. Jackson has rallied with transit unions and workers around the country calling for a cap on federal funding for urban transportation to be lifted. Session participants are supporting a renewed commitment to public transportation, which creates green jobs, protects the environment, stabilizes communities and supports a sustainable quality of life.
Infrastructure advocates, including Richard Rodriguez, head of Chicago's CTA, and Dr. Beverly Scott, CEO of the Atlanta bus and rail system, MARTA, were on hand to pledge their support.
Scott stated that the decline in the use of mass transit is resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs, and creating class barriers, elitism, and racism.
"We have gotten ourselves into one heck of a disaster," said Dr. Scott. "The way we are going to get it right is by changing our personal behavior and insisting on having quality first class transit systems. A transit system that your family will use, your neighbors will use, and then we will stop being treated like second class citizens."
The sense of history that was woven into this year's conference was highly evident on Tuesday as an uncommon group of clergy gathered at the minister's luncheon to hear the challenge from two generation inspirational tag team Rev. Otis Moss, Jr. and Rev. Otis Moss, III to summon the "courage to remember" the past and apply the lessons of history to present and future challenges.
The conference, which drew several thousand attendees to its numerous events, is a time of reunion and remembrance for many activists and Rainbow PUSH Coalition supporters. A special moment occurred during the women's luncheon when Rev. Jackson honored the little known civil rights pioneer Claudette Colvin and famed civil rights attorney Fred Gray. Colvin resisted Alabama bus segregation by refusing to move from her seat nine months before Rosa Parks made her historic stand, but Colvin's case was not taken on by black leaders because of her image as a lower-class, dark-skinned, unmarried, pregnant woman. Gray was attorney for both Colvin and Parks.
When Claudette Colvin stepped up to the podium to receive her award she said, "I feel like James Brown's song, I Feel Good! Ms. Colvin credited her parents and teachers for giving her the understanding to fight against Jim Crow. She said she studied Negro history and she was taught in an unorthodox way since they had no books. The incident on the bus occurred when she was already frustrated about some of the discriminatory atrocities she was witnessing, including a family member who was on death row.
"I just said they picked the wrong day to pick on me."
When asked by a reporter why she did not get up, she said she told her, "I couldn't move because history had me glued to the seat." She said it was like Sojourner Truth was on one side and Harriett Tubman was on the other pushing her back down in her seat when she thought about getting up.
She concluded by saying, "I am so proud that God has left me here long enough to tell the story.
I don't know what to say, Hallelujah! I am just happy to say to African American children, you are somebody and not inferior."
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition is a progressive organization devoted to protecting, defending and expanding civil rights to improve economic and educational opportunity. For more information visit www.rainbowpush.org.