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Reclaim the Land of Opportunity

The following is an excerpt from a speech delivered at the Take Back America conference on June 2, 2004. The full transcript of this speech and other speeches is available at the Campaign for America's Future.

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 marked a beginning of the dependence of the Republican Party on the politics of racial division to win elections and to gain power. By playing the race card in election after election they've appealed to that dark underside of American culture, to that minority of Americans who reject democracy and equality.

They preach racial neutrality and they practice racial division. They celebrate Dr. King and they misuse his message. Their idea of reparations is to give war criminal Jefferson Davis a pardon. Their idea of a pristine environment is a parking lot before the lines are painted in. Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and the confederate swastika flying side by side. Their idea of compassion is to ask the guest at the millionaire's banquet if they want an extra helping or a second dessert. They've tried to patch the leaky economy and every other domestic problem with duct tape and plastic sheets. They've written a new constitution for Iraq and ignored the Constitution here at home. They draw their most rabid supporters from the Taliban-wing of American politics.

And now they want to write bigotry back into the Constitution. They want to make one group of Americans outsiders to our common heritage. They want to do what has never been done before, to amend the Constitution to create a group of second-class citizens. Our Constitution is the last hope of freedom, it cannot become a carrier of prejudice and ignorance.

And what about the opposition party? Too often they're not in opposition; they're an amen corner. With some notable exceptions, they've been absent without leave in this battle for America's soul. When one party is shameless, the other can't afford to be spineless. These economic imbalances not only mean difficult times for many, they also undermine democratic values. The danger is that plutocracy will prevail over democracy, that the free market will rule over the free citizen.

The reason for the current deficit and the vanished surplus can be placed squarely on the tax giveaways to the rich. To make up for just the initial tax cuts, we'd have to cut spending by $5 billion five days a week for over a year. That, after all, was the whole point. To further enrich the already wealthy. To starve the government, to make it unable to meet human needs, signing a death warrant for social programs for decades and decades yet to come.

We have a president who talks like a populist and governs for the privileged. We were promised compassionate conservatism; instead we got crony capitalism. We have an attorney general who's a cross between J. Edgar Hoover and Jerry Falwell. And we have a Senate majority leader who has voted consistently against labor rights, against civil rights, against women's rights, and he's the one who replaced the bad guy. Now, we know that war and fear often cause hasty mistakes, costly both in economic and in human terms. We need to remind ourselves what America is fighting for.

Lessons From World War II

In the summer of 1918 on the eve of America's entry into World War I, one of the NAACP's founders, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, urged black people to forget our special grievances, close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens and the allied nations that were fighting for democracy. The criticism he faced was immediate and loud. He quickly reversed his position and he realized then, as we must realize now, that calls for a retreat from our rights are always wrong.

He understood then as we must now that when wars are fought to save democracy, the first casualty is usually democracy itself. We ought to instead remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who said in 1918, to announce there must be no criticism of the president or to stand by the president right or wrong is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonous to the American public. And we ought to remember the words of Ohio Senator Robert Taft'and I never thought I'd be quoting Robert Taft'who said two weeks after Pearl Harbor had been attacked, "I believe there can be no doubt that criticism in time of war is essential to the maintenance of any kind of democratic government."

It has taken 40 years and more to put in place a framework of civil rights enforcement, a framework now threatened on several fronts. The administration's judicial nominees are hostile to the basic principles of civil rights law and civil rights enforcement. They oppose the core constitutional principle of one person, one vote. They support federal funding for racially discriminatory schools. They've tried to rewrite anti-discrimination laws from the bench. They've eroded congressional authority to pass laws that protect civil rights.

Attacks On Civil Rights

Organizations dedicated to overturning the gains of the civil rights movement now dictate public policy. Their very names are fraudulent and their aims are frightening. They've stolen our vocabulary and now they want to steal the just spoils of our righteous war. Sophisticated and well funded, over the past decade they've already won several victories in the plot to dismantle justice and fair play. For more than a decade they've waged an ideological war against moderation on the federal judiciary, and then they squealed the loudest when the extremists they support are rejected.

Now they've ascended to unprecedented positions of power within the federal government. As has been said from this platform twice before today, there is a right-wing conspiracy. It controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary and a major portion of the news media.

President Bush chose Dr. King's birthday last year to unilaterally elevate Charles Pickering to the federal bench; Pickering's hostility to civil rights and his leniency for cross-burners notwithstanding. And the president chose Dr. King's birthday last year to announce that even though he admits society continues to do something special against racial minorities, his administration will not do anything special for them. He opposed Michigan's efforts to promote diversity in its student body. Frankly, I was afraid to listen to his speech at the Brown commemoration in Topeka two weeks ago: I was afraid he'd repeal the 14th Amendment.

Now, the election this fall is a contest between two widely disparate views of who we are and what we believe. One view wants us to march backward through history, surrendering control of government to special interest, weakening democracy, giving religion veto over science, curtailing civil liberties, despoiling the environment. The other view promises expanded democracy and giving the people, not the plutocrats, control over their government.

Grover Norquist'if you don't know his name, he's the man responsible for putting Ronald Reagan's name on something in whatever state you came from. Grover Norquist explained what is at stake in November. What will happen if progressives lose. He said if after the election Kerry is president but the Republicans control the House and Senate, we can keep him from getting anybody up on the Supreme Court. We won't let him raise taxes. No part of the Republican coalition would be damaged or destroyed by a Kerry victory.

But with another four years of Bush labor unions will decline further. We'll get tort reform, which will cost the trial lawyers millions and millions. We'll be reducing government employees, which will hurt the public employee unions. There's no opportunity for a Democratic united government, but there is, he said, an opportunity for a united Republican government.

The 2004 Election

So the stakes are high, higher than ever in recent memory, the consequences of loss almost too dire to bear. African Americans are our nation's largest racial minority and will remain so in the future. Their centrality to victory in 2004 can't be overlooked and it can't be left to last minute afterthoughts or early November drive-by politics.

We have to ensure that every citizen registers and votes and guarantee the irregularity, suppression, nullification, outright theft of black votes that happened on election day 2000 never, never, never, never, ever happens again. These votes can be a reward for advancing justice or a punishment for a betrayal. We're tired of fattening frogs for snakes.

Now, election 2000 confirmed our deep national divisions. Not only did Al Gore receive 90 percent of the black vote, and George W. Bush a majority of the white vote, whites made up 95 percent of Bush's total votes. Although 57 percent of voters with incomes under $15,000 voted for Gore, even poor whites cast a majority of their votes for Bush. Similarly, 54 percent of women voted for Gore, but white women slightly favored Bush. In politics, as in life, race trumps class and race trumps gender.

But the election also revealed a cultural as well as a racial divide. Gore won every major city and almost all suburbs, while Bush took every small town on a straight line from Redding, Calif. to Springfield, Ill. giving new meaning to Woody Guthrie's old song, 'This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.'

The only demographic groups that cast a unified vote were blacks, Latinos, Jews, union members and residents of large cities, all of whom voted 60 percent or more for Gore, and white males, who voted 60 percent for Bush. We know these divisions'for the most part'have deepened since the last election, so this divide pretty much tells us where we must begin. We can begin to close the divisions that separate us if we can bring cyberspace and city sidewalk together, if we can tell the evil empire move out or we'll 'move on' all over you.

Now as any long-suffering Red Sox fan ought to know, your team won't win if you don't touch the bases or if you run too far outside the base path. You can't win this race by ignoring race. In the 50th anniversary year of Brown we have a chance to become the first nation in human history to wholly assimilate a racially distinct former slave class. We know that if whites and nonwhites vote in the same percentages as they did in 2000, President Bush will be re-defeated by 3 million votes.

And we know that blacks are increasingly angry about the economy and the war. A recent poll in six key states'Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Michigan and Nevada'found that 73 percent of blacks believe Iraq is not worth fighting for, and a whopping 77 percent believed Bush intentionally misled the nation about the war. These are voters ready to turn anger into action, to work for a regime change here at home. But they have to be asked. They have to be registered. They have to be organized. They have to be mobilized.

And not just by the welcome new organizations with big treasuries; we have to use existing grassroots organizations that have a track record, that have earned and won their community's trust. And we have to be ready for a repetition of the systematic attempts to intimidate minority voters that have been the hallmark of Republican Party campaign efforts for at least 40 years. If we want to count on these voters we have to ensure them that their votes will count.

African Americans have always worshipped at the altar of the American ideal, believing deeply in participatory democracy. Together with likeminded minorities and likeminded whites we can, in the words of poet Langston Hughes – and I knew Langston Hughes – we can 'let America be America again, let it be the dream it used to be, let it be the pioneer on the plain seeking a home where he himself is free. Oh, let my land be a land where liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real and life is free. Equality is in the air we breathe. Oh yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me and yet I swear this oath. America will be.'

Julian Bond is the chairman of the NAACP.

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