Completing the Reconstruction of America

THE HONORABLE ELIJAH E. CUMMINGS

Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus
United States Congressman—Seventh Congressional
District of Maryland    

Charter Day Address
(Advance Text of Remarks)
 


WELCOME

Thank you, 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 time.

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 "reconstructed" America.

We convene for the 136th time to renew that vocation.

1. WE LIVE IN DANGEROUS & DIFFICULT TIMES

Ladies and 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 their lives.

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 judicial trial.

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 care system.

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 Supreme Court.

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 critical cause.

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 Internet site.

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"

Howard University 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"

This nation 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 University.

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 our history.

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 American society.

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" at all.

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 today.

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 harmony."

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 care programs.

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 society.

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 country.

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 American people.

CLOSING: MUCH IS EXPECTED

Ladies and 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 beings.

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 over.

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 them.

You are being educated to uplift others - even as you pursue your own dreams.

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 America.

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."

Thank you.

Elijah E. Cummings
United States Congressman (D-MD)

1632 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515
(202) 225-4741 FAX (202) 225-3178