the Reconstruction of America
THE HONORABLE ELIJAH E. CUMMINGS
Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus
United States Congressman—Seventh Congressional
District of Maryland
Text of Remarks)
Jennifer [Cummings}, for your kind words of introduction. I am
more proud of you than I can express.
President [H. Patrick] Swygert, Dr. [Floretta] Dukes McKenzie,
Rev. Dr. [Bernard L.] Richardson - distinguished faculty, students
and honored guests: Thank you.
Returning to my alma mater always lifts my spirits. And I am
deeply appreciative of the honor that you have quite generously
bestowed upon me this morning.
I bring you the continued admiration and respect of your brothers
and sisters in the Congressional Black Caucus. We strongly support
the calling and commission of Howard University.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to be here with you in the
presence of five men and women who have demonstrated - by the
content of their character and by their accomplishments - that
Howard University continues to fulfill its historic mission in our
Would our distinguished colleagues and friends - René
Higginbotham-Brooks, William Johnson, Madison Richardson, Emmet
Sullivan, and Edward Welburn - please stand again for a moment? I
am humbled to stand here in your presence.
Please join me, everyone, in applauding the people of stature who
stand before us today.
Thank you, friends. You remind my daughter and me that we are
links in an unbroken generational chain.
Ours is a legacy of excellence - applied to the demands of duty.
Since 1867, our university has pursued a uniquely American
purpose. We gather again today to recall that Howard University
was chartered to produce the leaders who would forge a
We convene for the 136th time to renew that vocation.
1. WE LIVE IN DANGEROUS & DIFFICULT TIMES
gentlemen, our calling, here at Howard, is to create an America
that is dedicated to justice and inclusion. This great university
exists to develop human capability and express the beauty that
lives within every human soul.
I stand before you this morning as the representative of 39
African American women and men who have been duly-elected to serve
the people of our communities in the Congress of the United
States. We have been entrusted by these American families - people
of every ethnic background and faith tradition - to work for a
national agenda that will speak to the most pressing challenges in
I am here today to reaffirm that our vocation - our calling - here
at Howard is shared by the tens of millions of Americans who have
entrusted their most precious civil right to the Members of the
Congressional Black Caucus.
I also recall for you that our aspirations are shared by the
majority of Americans who voted in the last presidential election
(and by most of those Americans whose most precious civil right
was not affirmed by a deeply flawed electoral process).
You should draw strength and determination from this knowledge.
On behalf of the broad and diverse majority of Americans who share
our vision, I commend Howard University for the values of social
justice and inclusion that are at the center of our Charter. These
aspirations are the true vocation of America.
I must acknowledge, however, that we Americans are living through
difficult and dangerous times.
We were all moved and uplifted this morning by the inspiring music
of Dr. [J. Weldon] Norris and the Howard University Choir and
Orchestra. Tragically, however, the inspiring talent of these
talented women and men reminds us that we must again contemplate
the horrors of war.
We gather here at a moment in this nation's history when the
Administration that now holds power in the White House speaks of
peace while it prepares for war; speaks of freedom for the people
of Iraq while it acknowledges that it may utilize nuclear weapons
against their homes, and speaks of defending our freedom as
Americans while it asserts a virtually unlimited power to search
our homes and eavesdrop upon our conversations without significant
judicial authorization or supervision - as well as the asserted
power to hold American citizens in prison without legal counsel or
As an American of color, I also must challenge the President's
misconception that segregation and inequality are nothing more
than appalling failings of America's past. We, who gather here at
this "freedman's school" are painfully aware that de facto
segregation along racial and ethnic lines continues to be a harsh
reality of life for millions of American citizens.
The Congressional Black Caucus - along with our allies in the
Congressional Hispanic and Asian Pacific congressional
organizations - appeal to the conscience and self-interest of this
great nation when we declare that:
We have not ended segregation when minority school children are
less likely to receive an empowering education because America has
not adequately funded all of our public schools.
We have not eliminated segregation when Americans of color are
"redlined" out of our dream of home ownership, "racially-profiled"
out of our right to justice and denied equal opportunity in the
workplace and business world.
We have not eliminated segregation in America when men and women
of color are more likely to die because of a discriminatory health
And we have not eliminated segregation in America when this nation
fails to provide the financial support that would allow all of our
children to complete college.
We will not end de facto segregation in America by nominating and
confirming federal judges who believe ( incredibly) that the Civil
War Amendments to our Constitution prohibit voluntary action to
more fully include minority Americans in the most empowering
opportunities of our national life.
I applaud this great university - and especially President Swygert
and my good friend, Kurt Schmoke, Dean of the Howard University
School of Law - for "speaking truth to power" in Howard
University's amicus curiae brief in the Michigan affirmative action cases pending before the
We cannot end segregation by allowing a flawed constitutional
interpretation of the Civil War Amendments to cripple our great
public universities in their enlightened use of narrowly tailored
policies of inclusion.
2. THE "RECONSTRUCTION" OF AMERICA
As many of you may
be aware, the Congressional Black Caucus has also filed an amicus curiae Supreme Court brief that expresses our support for the University
of Michigan's voluntary efforts to include African Americans,
Hispanic Americans and Native Americans within its
highly-selective undergraduate programs and school of law.
Congressman John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary
Committee, led the world-class legal team that fulfilled that
commitment. Congressman Chaka Fattah, a recognized expert on
education, filed an important supplementary argument.
And we are deeply gratified that scores of other House leaders -
including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Congressional Hispanic
Caucus Chair Ciro Rodriguez, and Asian-Pacific Congressional
Caucus Chair David Wu - have joined the CBC in this just and
Today, however, I want to commend the contents of the Howard
University amicus curiae brief to your attention. It is readily available on Howard's
The Howard University position should be required reading for
every American. It offers both a compelling legal argument and a
well-documented summary of the obstacles to justice and inclusion
that continue to plague American life.
Those of us here today, however, do not need to read a legal
argument to know that, nearly a century and a half after the Civil
War, the reconstruction of America is far from complete.
The First Wave of "Reconstruction"
has been at the center of this nation's slow, often interrupted,
but relentless, transformation toward universal justice and
security. In the 19th Century, Americans fought and died for the
proposition that the freedom and economic opportunity of one
person cannot be based on the subjugation of another.
Slavery was this nation's original sin - it was a fundamental
wrong that Americans of conscience of every race and creed
struggle still to expiate.
During the first reconstruction of America, Howard University was
created for the specific purpose of leading Americans of color out
of an imposed culture of servitude.
The connection between learning and leadership has been Howard's
foundation from the beginning.
The original strategy of reconstruction was valid - but, after a
time, the country lost the political will to follow this strategy
to its logical conclusion.
The Second Wave of "Reconstruction"
regressed into segregation and Jim Crow - and, for generations,
the high ideals of 19th Century Reconstruction went unfulfilled.
Then, Thurgood Marshall and others completed the strategy for a
second wave of reconstruction that was mapped out here at Howard
When the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education
that racially-separate education is inherently unequal and
unconstitutional, that ruling provided an essential foundation for
America's second - 20th Century - reconstruction movement. We know
that second wave of reconstruction as the civil rights movement of
the 1950s and 1960s.
As we confront the challenges that we face today, we must never
forget that the Brown victory did not happen overnight. To
formulate the 20th Century's "reconstruction" of America, Thurgood
Marshall and many other committed leaders struggled for decades -
beginning in the 1930s.
In 1935, Thurgood Marshall, William Gosnell & NAACP Legal Director
Charles Hamilton Houston challenged the University of Maryland's
exclusion of Black students in the Circuit Court for Baltimore
City. In Murray v. Pearson,
they successfully argued that the equal protection clause of the
14th Amendment must be satisfied within Maryland - not by sending
law students out of state.
A 1990 Washington Post article by Juan Williams memorialized how
my teacher and friend, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, assessed the
impact of Marshall's 1935 legal victory:
"The colored people of Baltimore were on fire when Thurgood did
that.... They were euphoric with victory.... We didn't know about
the Constitution. He brought us the Constitution as a document
like Moses brought his people the Ten Commandments."
After I graduated from Howard in the early 1970s - I was able to
attend the University of Maryland School of Law because of what
Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP had accomplished.
Today, friends, as the result of that second, 20th Century wave of
"reconstruction," you and I have a far greater opportunity to
participate in the life of this diverse nation.
Today, because of what Marshall and his contemporaries
accomplished, we have the largest African American middle class in
But, ladies and gentlemen, we are also painfully aware that all is
not right in the America of our time.
3. FORGING AN AMERICAN AGENDA
Friends, it is
time for the third wave of reconstruction in America. It is time
for a renewed - and multiracial - movement that will complete the
reconstruction of America.
For those of us who are people of color, the agenda of that
movement must begin with civil rights.
Racial & Ethnic Reconciliation
Earlier this year,
comments by the then Senate Republican leader created a national
fire storm that led to his replacement and calls for a "national
agenda of racial and ethnic reconciliation."
We in the Congressional Black Caucus will continue to do our part
toward achieving that goal. National unity is especially important
during these difficult and dangerous times.
Nevertheless, the goal of reconciliation cannot allow us to
reconcile Americans of color to continued exclusion,
discrimination and injustice.
As a nation, we must guarantee to all Americans their fundamental
right to vote - and that requires that this Congress must fully
fund the election reform measures that we passed last year.
We must enact more expansive and more effective legislative
protection against discrimination, against hate crimes and against
inequitable sentencing by our courts. And we must assure that
nominees for federal judgeships demonstrate a commitment to civil
rights and constitutional guarantees.
An American Agenda that is Central to People's Lives
I must also point
out, however, that the Americans who sent the Members of the
Congressional Black Caucus to Washington are Black, White and
every other color of the rainbow that makes up our diverse
Our agenda must be one that speaks to the issues central to the
lives of all Americans - as the late Senator Paul Wellstone so
eloquently argued before his untimely death.
We should not overlook the reality that far too many Americans of
all racial backgrounds are subject to the most crippling
segregation of all.
Theirs is the segregation from opportunity that is the inevitable
result of poverty.
Their human rights are being denied.
As a society, we Americans believe that a hungry child has a human
right to be fed. We believe that every human being has a right to
medical care in times of injury or disease.
Eleanor Roosevelt once observed that: "Human rights must begin in
small places close to home. They are the world of the individual
person, where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice,
equal opportunity and equal dignity without discrimination."
"Unless these rights have meaning there," Mrs. Roosevelt
concluded, "they have little meaning anywhere."
Most Americans would agree with Eleanor Roosevelt's insight. But
the people of this nation, Caucasians as well as Americans of
color, are also beginning to realize that - unless these human
rights are protected and advanced by law - they are not "rights"
The "third reconstruction" of America" - the movement to enact a
truly American Agenda - must be directed toward creating a society
that synchronizes its conduct with its conscience.
The "human rights" of the American people must be transformed into
"civil rights" guaranteed by law.
That, my friends, is the hard lesson that Americans of color
learned from the first two waves of American reconstruction. And
that is the hard lesson that too many other Americans are learning
I must speak truth to power, my friends. And the truth about life
in America today is this:
Most poor children in America are not Black. Most sick children in
America are not Black.
Most Americans who cannot afford health insurance are not Black.
And most of the children who are being denied an empowering
education in America today are not Black.
These American children are OUR children, ladies and gentlemen,
whatever may be the color of their skin. We must never allow the
virus of racial division to infect our vision of what it means to
be human beings.
This society has taught our people more about injustice than any
people ever deserved to learn. Now it is our time, our duty and
our opportunity to teach and lead all Americans toward a society
that is both just and free.
Fulfilling Dr. King's Legacy
Last month, we
Americans again honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We applauded his philosophy of nonviolent social change.
Today, I ask you: What message does Dr. King's legacy have for the
leaders of our time?
For the Congressional Black Caucus, this question inspires our
vision of America's role in the world - as well as our traditional
mission of support for civil and human rights.
We live in a time when many nations have the capability to
construct weapons of mass destruction. Peace, Dr. King would tell
us, has become a precondition to our continued survival.
"World peace through non-violent means is neither absurd nor
unattainable," he observed after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize
in 1964. "All other methods have failed. Thus we must begin anew.
Nonviolence is a good starting point."
Dr. King would caution America's current leadership that our
highest national principles - and the geopolitical realities that
we face - demand less reliance upon military power. We must invest
in a foreign policy that would make this nation a full partner in
the world's struggle against poverty, violence and disease.
"Peace," Dr. King often declared, "is more than the absence of
violent conflict. Peace is the presence of justice."
In his time, the man whom we honored last month understood the
interconnected challenges that racism, excessive materialism and
militarism continue to pose to humanity.
"When we solve these three great problems: racial injustice around
the world, poverty and war," he predicted, "we will have squared
our moral progress with our scientific progress. And, more
importantly, we will have learned the practical art of living in
Today, here in America, we must continue the struggle for racial
and ethnic justice. Dr. King would agree that enacting and
adequately funding federal election reform - as well as expanded
legal protections against discrimination, hate crimes and
inequitable sentencing by our courts - would constitute important
first steps toward that unifying national objective.
However, Dr. King's vision for America transcended these
long-standing civil rights goals. We should never forget the Poor
People's Campaign that he led - nor the fact that he died while
trying to help sanitation workers achieve a living wage.
Dr. King's legacy to the America of our time calls out for prompt
and constructive action to transform the "human rights" that are
central to our lives into civil rights protected by federal law.
We must promptly address the deep concerns that all Americans feel
about their health care, their safety, their freedom and their
economic opportunity. And we must defeat the continuing threats to
our civil rights and freedom.
Let me outline for you some of what this American Agenda would
mean for everyday American families.
Dr. King's vision calls out for federal legislation that would
assure universal access to: affordable health insurance,
prescription drug coverage for our most vulnerable citizens, a
comprehensive patients' bill of rights and the elimination of
racial and ethnic discrimination in federally-supported health
He would caution us to balance our public safety initiatives with
stronger protections for our most fundamental freedoms.
Finally, Dr. King argued that economic opportunity and security
form the foundation for our ability to exercise and enjoy these
other human rights.
That reality is why the Congressional Black Caucus strongly
supports: increased federal aid for public education and college
tuition; a higher minimum wage; and a combination of extended
unemployment compensation and job training for Americans who are
out of work through no fault of their own.
It is also why the CBC will continue to support initiatives that
would expand access to affordable housing, investment capital and
technological training; invest in rebuilding America's cities;
fairly support our family farms; strengthen our system of
retirement security; better protect our environment; and reduce
our dependence upon foreign oil.
This American Agenda that the Congressional Black Caucus supports
is an ambitious one. We are convinced, however, that our
priorities are goals that the American people need - and deserve -
their government to accomplish. We also believe that these
objectives are squarely within Dr. King's vision for American
If Dr. King were alive today, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, has
observed, "...he would be in the forefront of reminding the
government that its first concern should be the basic needs of its
citizens - not just black Americans but all Americans - for food,
shelter, health care, education, jobs, livable incomes and the
opportunity to realize their full potential as individual people."
That message - we are convinced - is Dr. King's message to the
leaders of our time.
4. THE CHALLENGE OF PAYING
FOR OUR AMERICAN AGENDA.
Many of the
initiatives that I have mentioned would be expensive in the short
run - although I am convinced that they will strengthen our
economy in the longer term.
I believe that the fundamental solution to that funding challenge
requires a system of federal taxation that is more progressive -
not less so. The taxes that each of us pays should reflect our
financial capabilities - as well as the benefits that we receive
as the result of living, working and doing business in this
Tax cuts that are targeted toward the small businesses that
provide most of our jobs - and toward the American working
families who will use those refunds to stimulate the economy - are
good for America.
However, "trickle-down economics" failed during the 1980s. And I
believe that tax policies that favor the most wealthy Americans
over working families are failing again today - both as economic
stimulus measures and as instruments of greater social equity.
Now, when I challenge the more than $1 Trillion federal tax
giveaway that the President and his Republican allies have
sponsored, I am not - as some have attempted to argue - engaging
in "class warfare."
Most of the Americans who sent my colleagues and me to Congress
are working families struggling to make ends meet.
If there is any class warfare being pursued in Washington, it is a
war against these working families whom we represent. It is an
unfair, divisive and unproductive economic war that the people who
sent us to Washington have been losing.
We must transform that economic equation -- redirecting our
economic policies to invest in the skills and values of the
CLOSING: MUCH IS EXPECTED
gentlemen, I often say that our young people are our living
messages to a future that we shall never see. Our mission here at
Howard is to send these young people into the future with a
message of competence, integrity and compassion for other human
So, with your permission, ladies and gentlemen, I will bring these
reflections to a close by speaking directly to the leaders of
tomorrow who are here with us today.
Young people: America's journey to fulfill her promise is not
Our highest calling is to complete the reconstruction of America
as "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice
for all." And you are destined to lead this movement -- to advance
a truly American Agenda.
You are privileged - just as I was privileged. You have the
opportunity to study and learn at a great university - a
university that was created to further the American ideal of
justice and inclusion.
This is not a place for those who simply desire to succeed within
the status quo. This is a place designed to train and nurture
those who will create a reconstructed and renewed America.
I remind you, today, that "from those to whom much is given, much
is expected in return."
The connection between the world-class education that you are
receiving here at Howard and the duty to lead others toward
freedom and justice is inseparable. Study here at Howard has
always been designed to produce a very special kind of leader -
what Dr. King called the servant leader.
You are here to learn how to walk with our people, not ahead of
You are being educated to uplift others - even as you pursue your
You are here to learn how to serve others in the American people's
collective march to freedom.
Young people, I am convinced that the fulfillment of America's
promise is your destiny. I believe that we can make the American
Agenda that I have outlined today a reality in your lifetime.
We will prevail if we carry on this commission that God has
entrusted into our hands. This is my conviction and my faith.
So, I ask you to prepare yourselves well to lead. I ask you to
lead your Brothers and Sisters - young Americans of every color
and faith tradition - until we prevail in the reconstruction of
I ask you to stand for the rights of all humanity - here in
America and throughout the world. And I ask you to carry on with
this mission "until justice rolls down like waters . . . and
righteousness like a mighty stream."
Elijah E. Cummings
United States Congressman
Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515
(202) 225-4741 FAX (202) 225-3178