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Atlanta NAACP Branch Annual Jubilee Day Celebration speech

Atlanta NAACP Branch, Tuesday January 1, 2019, at Friendship Baptist Church at 10:00 a.m. Annual Jubilee Day Celebration commemorates the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Theme: “United We Shall Stand”

Good morning. Rev. Dr. Wills, Bishop Guthrie, Rabbi Nemhauser, Imam Suleiman Ali, members of Friendship Baptist Church, elected officials, pastors, dignitaries, NAACP officials, brothers and sisters: I’m honored to be here to address such a beautiful crowd on such an important day in our history, in such an historic edifice as Friendship Baptist Church. 

To watch the speech, click HERE.

I sincerely trust that everyone has had a joyous holiday season, blessed to be surrounded with family and friends. As we celebrate the arrival of a New Year, let us be prayerful for those who have passed on, while being thankful that we have lived to see another day! Happy New Year to everyone!

I want to thank the Atlanta NAACP under the leadership of my good friend Richard Rose, and also my good friend Attorney Gerald Griggs, for inviting me to deliver remarks on this first day of 2019. I also want to thank the Rev. Dr. Richard W. Wills, Sr. and the historic Friendship Baptist Church family, for hosting us today.

The tyranny of slavery was in full force and effect as Rev. Frank Quarles set about organizing a church – a spiritual oasis amidst the harsh and cruel reality of everyday life under the institution of slavery. The tyranny of slavery was all that Rev. Quarles and the members of Friendship Baptist Church had ever known. Friendship Baptist Church was established in 1862 – a year before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. I can imagine Friendship’s Founder Rev. Quarles and his flock, with anxious visions of freedom from the shackles of slavery, huddled together on Watch Night, 1862, singing spirituals and praying for freedom. They awaited the start of the New Year, January 1,1863. Jubilee Day! Independence Day for Black people!

The day when the Emancipation Proclamation, an Executive Order issued by President Abraham Lincoln, would become the law of the land. Can you close your eyes and imagine how much joy and hope the members of Friendship Baptist Church must have felt on Watch Night 1862 as they awaited the arrival of Jubilee Day – January 1, 1863? “Free At Last” they must have felt when the clock struck midnight! If Prince had been alive back then he would have written the song: Tonight I’m gonna party like its 1862!

I believe that Rev. Quarles must have been a leader of great vision, neighborliness and benevolence. His vision was grounded in his Christian faith in establishing a church for the spiritual well-being of his people. So with faith, hope, love, and the dream of being one day free, he established a little church called Friendship. Because he was a neighborly man of goodwill, he had the ability to call upon friends up north, at the Ninth Street Baptist Church in Cincinnati, for help when he needed a place for his members to hold worship services. The folks at Ninth Street Baptist purchased an old railroad boxcar and had it sent from Chattanooga to Atlanta for the church to utilize as its first edifice. Rev. Quarles’ benevolence was manifested by his understanding of the role that education would play, in the uplifting and development of Black people.

Rev. Quarles opened the church, to Morehouse and Spellman College students, who attended classes in the basement of the church. Look how far Spellman, Morehouse, and the Atlanta University Center have come! Look how far Atlanta, Georgia, the South, and the nation have come! And look how far Friendship Baptist Church has come, now under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Wills, only the 7th Pastor in Friendship’s 156 years! If the history of Friendship Baptist Church and Black people in Atlanta and across America, does not represent a true embodiment of emancipation, I don’t know what does! Friendship Baptist Church is symbolic, of the progress that Black folks have achieved in America, and I believe Rev. Quarles is looking down from heaven, glowing with pride and approval at the progress that the church he gave birth to, has achieved!

So today, 156 years later, Black folks again gather at Friendship Baptist Church, to celebrate Jubilee Day – our Independence Day –  and to reflect on the reality, that we still have much work left to do, to make our country great, and free, for all of her people.

America is a great country, and America is an exceptional nation because of the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, which her citizens enjoy. Ironically, the wise and learned framers of our Constitution, never intended for the rights and privileges guaranteed thereunder, to apply to dark skinned human beings, or to women. The white male property owners who were the great thinkers who framed the Constitution, meant for its protections to apply only amongst themselves. Fortunately for us, over the course of history, it has been the United States Supreme Court, that has been the branch of government that Black people have relied upon, to ensure our due process and equal protection under the law. Last week Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had cancer surgery. I hope that you are praying, just as hard as I am, that she makes a speedy and full recovery.

Despite all of the progress that we have made in America, and despite the beautiful skies this morning, heavy storm clouds are on the horizon. Our Democracy teeters on the brink of failure. The lofty ideals of freedom and liberty that America was founded, upon are being overtaken by a vigorous resurgence of bigotry, hate, cruelty, and ignorance.  Chaos and confusion rule the day, while lies and deception flourish as complicit leaders stand silent, protecting their own power and privilege, rather than fulfilling their oaths to defend the Constitution, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

A powerful domestic enemy of Democracy has emerged from the dark shadows of America. The same thing is happening in other countries. In fact, the attack on democracy and freedom is a trend sweeping the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the demise of the Eastern Bloc and the move towards freedom and democracy, the people in Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary, are electing far right-conservative, nationalist leaders who are rolling back democracy. Those authoritarian leaders are pushing laws that do away with freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and they are strangling the independence of their judicial systems. The people of Turkey elected an authoritarian President who has moved to suppress the human rights of the Turkish people. The people of Great Britain, in response to a right-wing, anti-immigrant inspired BREXIT campaign, voted to leave the European Union. The financial hub of the European Union is leaving the European Union! That is like New York seceding from the United States! The people of Brazil recently elected as president a right- wing racist, authoritarian nationalist. History is repeating itself across the globe.

The same trend toward authoritarian rule is playing out here at home, where Americans elected an authoritarian, anti-immigrant racist strongman to the nation’s highest office. Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” followers, who want to return America back to a time when white men and white privilege were unchallenged, and where minorities and women were in their place, now control the power of the Presidency.

Some of Donald Trump’s supporters are older, less educated, less prosperous, and they are dying early-their life spans are decreasing, and many are dying from alcoholism, drug overdoses, liver disease, or simply a broken heart caused by economic despair. In America, as in other nations across the world, global economic forces have disrupted national economies, and people are finding themselves caught between growing economic inequality, and a bleak economic future for themselves and their children. Right wing ideologues gain power by playing on people’s economic despair, pitting working people against each other, inflaming racial tensions by blaming economic hardship on people of color. The reality is that these right-wing authoritarians are laissez-fair, free-market capitalists with insatiable thirsts, for more and more profits. Under their leadership, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

And freedom and liberty hang in the balance. America as we know it is in trouble. For the unlearned, the unwise and the foolish, and for those who are asleep, history can repeat itself. These are times when we can’t sleep. We must stay woke.

Democracy is a majority rules system. When the people are apathetic and don’t vote, or are victims of voter suppression, then the majority of those who do vote, control what happens, to everyone else. If that majority votes on the basis of hatred, lies, ignorance, selfishness, etc., then freedom for some is tenuous. If the conditions are just right, freedom in the hands of a simple majority with a collective malignant heart – can lead to tyranny. Tyranny in the form of slavery has been a reality in this country, and we must be diligent to ensure that it does not happen again.

The Jewish people understand tyranny. Charismatic and a good public speaker, deceptive and cunning, Adolph Hitler rose to power to lead Germany in 1932 after democratic elections. He rode a wave of nationalism and anti-Semitism to power. Replace anti-Semitism with all Latinos crossing our border are rapists, drug dealers and murderers, and does this sound familiar? Hitler was accepting of violence towards the achievement of political objectives. Trump encouraging violence against protesters at his rallies, and his messaging about Charlottesville — that there were fine people on both sides, sent a powerful message of approval to the far-right racists in America. Hitler led a political movement of anti-education, anti-science racists who focused on nationalism, with rhetoric about making Germany a strong country, which would result in prosperity for the German people, who were hurting due to the disruption caused by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the effects of the Great Depression. Sound familiar? The aim was to unite the blond-haired, blue-eyed Germanic Aryan people against the Jews, the Italians, the Polish, etc. Hitler didn’t start the Nazi Party, but he took over the party with charisma and leadership. The Nazis and Hitler became synonymous. Much like Hitler took over the Nazi Party, Trump has taken over the Republican Party. It is now known as the Trump Republican Party. Trump’s vow during the campaign to stop Muslims from coming into our country became reality when, having been elected President, Trump signed an Executive Order banning people from certain Muslim countries, from entering America. And the U.S. Supreme Court, ignoring Trump’s own words, allowed the Muslim ban to go forward. That was not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has gotten it wrong on an Executive Order. In 1944, it ruled constitutional, an Executive Order mandating the internment of Japanese American United States Citizens, not Japanese folks temporarily here on visas. But full-fledged citizens born in this country who had committed no crimes, but who happened to be of Japanese heritage!

Hitler also gained influence with military leaders, and the 1932 elections were flooded with special interest money from industrialists and other wealthy conservative interest. Our United States Supreme Court got that one wrong too, when it opened the floodgates for special interest money to overtake our political process, with its decision in Citizens United.  When Hitler became Chancellor, his supporters marched through Berlin with torches. I’m reminded of the tiki torches that the racists anti-Semites paraded through Charlottesville with chanting “Jews Won’t Replace Us.” Is history poised to repeat itself in America?

Hitler’s followers physically attacked his political enemies, while others maintained silence, in fear, hoping that things would get better. Trump calls his critics in the media “enemies of the state” and riles up the crowds at his rallies into a frenzy against the media in attendance, causing some to feel unsafe.

Germans in high positions of power and influence used to say that Hitler was a mediocre leader who would not be allowed to do too much damage to German institutions of democracy, and that Germany, with its freedom of speech and thought, and the diversity of its people, could never fall into dictatorship. In the book entitled “On Tyranny” by Timothy Snyder, the author writes about how the people of Germany assumed that the institutions of government could survive attacks by Hitler and his supporters, and he noted how even German Jews, despite Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism, made the mistake of minimizing the harm that could come from Hitler’s ascension to power. He quotes an editorial dated February 2, 1933 from a prominent German Jewish newspaper, which expressed the mislaid trust of its editor as follows: “We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in Nazi newspapers; they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because of a number of crucial factors hold powers in check… and they clearly do not want to go down that road. When one acts as a European power, the whole atmosphere tends toward ethical reflection upon one’s better self and away from revisiting ones earlier oppositional posture.”

That was the view held by many Germans shortly after Hitler came to power. After 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust, the Jewish people will always be diligent to make sure that history does not repeat itself. Americans, particularly Black Americans, can’t afford to make the mistake that some made about the harm that could be done by a man like Hitler. Although Trump is a threat to the freedom and liberty of every American, Black people should be particularly vigilant, given the knowledge that when white folks catch a cold in America, Black folks catch pneumonia.

So, brothers and sisters, I feel so good about what the American people did on this past November 6, when they voted Democrats in, to take over the House of Representatives. If that had not happened, I would be much less optimistic about America’s future, and Black folks’ future in America, than I feel today.

The Trump Republican Party so far has shown itself to be a party that will permit Donald Trump to get away with killing someone on 5th Avenue in broad daylight, and still support him. A Democratic House of Representatives will not allow Trump to get away with trampling the Rule of Law. But I can’t guarantee that the United States Supreme Court will uphold our freedom from an unjust Trump Executive Order, so I’m concerned about the highest court in the land. I’m concerned that should something happen, and either Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor or Ginsberg be rendered unable to serve, and Donald Trump is able to appoint another Brett Kavanaugh to the Court – I’m concerned about what could happen to our rights.

Despite ratification in 1868 of the 14th Amendment guaranteeing to Black folks due process and equal protection under the law, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, ruled that segregation of the races was legal. The Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson enshrined Jim Crow into law for 58 years before it was overturned. Most recently, in Shelby County v. Holder the U.S. Supreme Court, ignoring volumes of evidence, gutted the Voting Rights Act. Ever since, Black folks’ precious right to vote is being systematically denied, with the effect being the election of Brian Kemp as Georgia’s next governor. So, we can’t afford to go to sleep. We must stay woke, and we must take action to protect and safeguard our democracy. This is our country, and we must assume the duty, to fight to ensure that America lives up to her democratic values of liberty, equality and justice for all.

Today represents a fresh beginning – New Year’s Day – a chance to start anew – make resolutions, lose weight, exercise more, eat better and wipe the slate clean. But it is also an opportunity to look back on our history, to appreciate how the past has shaped our present, and put us on the path we’re on today, to shape our destiny yet to come.

So, let us begin this new year by renewing our bonds to one another and reinvesting in the work that lies ahead, confident that we can keep driving freedom’s progress in our time.

Let me say that one more time: Let us begin this new year by renewing our bonds to one another and reinvesting in the work that lies ahead, confident that we can keep driving freedom’s progress in our time.

Thank you.