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Celebrating Black History

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As we celebrate Black History Month this year, I would like to invite us all to consider what African- American history means to our country, to our community, and to each of us as individuals.

For me, there are many touchstones, but often I think of a simple, heartbreaking statement I heard nearly three years ago: “They’re not going to let him win.” So I was told by an elderly, quietly dignified African-American woman who barely cracked open her front door in snowy Iowa when I knocked. I was there to help organize support for an African-American senator from Illinois who was running for President. Perfectly poised, the woman was impassive as she spoke past the chain still fastened to her door, maintaining the dignity that she had seen denied to so many others. For she remembered too well a time when water fountains and buses were a canvas for oppression, when the word “separate” drained all meaning from the word “equal.”

My generation is marked by different memories. When we think of struggle and injustice, we also remember a great man who taught us to dream. We remember walking arm-in-arm with an ever-growing community whose voices told a story of freedom, from neighborhood coalitions to the courtroom. I am a child of this time – my mother raised my sister and me in Oakland amidst marches for racial justice and equality.

When I first ran for office, there were those who said “no,” who said: “it’s too difficult,” or, “it’s not your turn.”

But I responded yes, the time is now and the time is right. And all across the country, my voice is just one part of a chorus of leaders committed to making that basic truth – that all men and women are created equal – more evident.

Soon, our children will know only a world in which a Black man named Barack Obama stood in the eyes of a nation and spoke these singular, American words: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” For all of the challenges we still face, our young people today are more free, and less marked by the past, than any generation before. And that makes our history all the more important, for these children will soon write the next chapters in our history of struggle, of redemption, of ever-growing justice. We do not know the history they will write. However, as Coretta Scott King reminds us, freedom is earned with each generation. In this renewal, it is not only history that helps us understand where we are today; where we are today also helps us revisit our history. And so, on a cold day in January 2008, I saw the elderly, quietly dignified African-American woman step into a caucus room in Iowa, joining cause with a generation of young people who had never learned that they could not do something. She re-wrote part of her story that day, and ours.

Make no mistake, there is much work still left to do. From our criminal justice system, to the mortgage crisis, to health care, to education, we face challenges that demand the courage and innovation of the civil rights generation. These challenges are more diverse than ever. But so are the solutions – today, more than ever before, we can empower people to work together across boundaries towards positive change, real solutions, and the promise of our great nation. And that must be our work, not only to honor history but to make history.

As I reflect and celebrate Black History Month, I recognize that it is, in some ways, none of those things. It is not only Black – it is the history of our country and of our world, it is all of ours. It is not only history – it is a story that we are still writing, it is our future. And it is not only a month – let us make it a reminder for every day, every week, and every month.

Kamala Harris is District Attorney of San Francisco.

Black History Month Marks Launch of National Urban League Centennial Celebration

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This year, Black History Month coincides with a historic milestone of the National Urban League: our 100th anniversary. Fittingly, this year's theme, "The History of Black Economic Empowerment," tracks the organization's century-long mission.

The National Urban League was founded in 1910 to address the needs of African Americans migrating north from the Jim Crow South in search of jobs and a better life. Unfortunately, one hundred years later, the doors of opportunity are not yet fully opened to people of color. And history remains one of our greatest teachers. As President Obama said in his historic 2008 speech on race, "…So many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow…That legacy helps explain the wealth and income gap between Black and white and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persist in so many of today's urban and rural communities."

But in spite of tremendous odds, African Americans have made remarkable contributions to America and continue to embrace Dr. King's dream.

Highlighting those largely unheralded contributions has always been the purpose of Black History Month.

While our centennial year is also a time to reflect on the rich history and legacy of the National Urban League, these times call for action. We want to use this moment to rally the American people to join with us in tackling some of the most pressing and persistent problems facing our nation. To that end, we have chosen Black History Month to announce the launch of our national public service initiative, I AM EMPOWERED, which will officially kick-off on March 1. Focused on four aspirational goals for America in the areas of education, employment, housing and healthcare, I AM EMPOWERED will galvanize millions of people to take a pledge to help achieve the following by 2025: Education - Every American child is ready for college, work and life.

Jobs - Every American has access to jobs with a living wage and good benefits.

Housing - Every American lives in safe, decent, affordable and energy efficient housing on fair terms.

Healthcare - Every American has access to quality and affordable health care solutions.

Black History Month 2010 also marks one year that America's first African American president has been in office. President Obama's election and the I AM EMPOWERED initiative remind us of the power of individual and collective citizen action to bring about change.

We will announce further details of the campaign in the coming weeks, including a website where you can pledge to work with us to achieve our four empowerment goals.

As we start our celebration of Black History Month and the 100th anniversary of the National Urban League, I urge every American to claim your empowerment and become a part of this exciting movement for change.

Marc Morial is president and CEO of The Black Leadership forum.

Redistricting Commission Needs Diverse Pool

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History will forever remember January 20, 2009 as the day we inaugurated our first African American president.

It was a day we all hoped and worked for and some of us feared we wouldn¹t live to see.

This week, we marked our first Martin Luther King Jr. Day with President Barack Obama in the White House. It¹s an occasion worth celebrating, if for no other reason than to honor and pay homage to those who sacrificed so much to make it possible.

Yet as great and momentous and historic as these times are, every day we¹re confronted by this reality: as far as we¹ve come, there¹s still an awful lot to do.

That¹s why it¹s crucial we take advantage of every opportunity we have to make an impact not just on the national stage, but in our state and in our community as well. And there are opportunities even in these difficult times.

For starters, 2010 is a Census year the time for every one of us to stand up and be counted.

And what follows the Census is every bit as important but far less well-known. It¹s called redistricting the process of redrawing the boundaries for state Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts to make the population of each district equal.

You¹ve heard the phrase “one person, one vote.” Redistricting is how we make that principle a reality. And this year, we¹ve got a new opportunity to have our say in how districts are drawn in California.

Until now, redistricting has been under the control of the Legislature and the Governor.

But voters changed things last year when they approved Proposition 11 the Voters First Act. It put responsibility for redistricting into the hands of California’s first Citizens Redistricting Commission.

And just who will serve on this new 14-member commission an independent panel that will have real power over how California will be governed for the next decade? Well, for starters, why not you?

To qualify, you need to be a registered voter, with consistent registration over the last five years, and have voted in at least two of the last three general elections. It doesn’t matter what political party you belong to or if you aren’t a member of any party.

There are conflict-of-interest provisions neither you nor any close relative can have been a federal or state political candidate, a lobbyist, or have donated $2,000 or more to a candidate in the last 10 years.

But it’s easy to apply. The initial application is available on-line and only takes a few minutes to complete.

It¹s all at the website www.WeDrawtheLines.ca.gov.

Response to State of the Union Address: We Cannot Be Silent

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President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address is a testimony to the power of we: we, who dared to dream breaking the centuries-old color barrier at the White House was possible; we, who continue to fight for expanding voting rights; we, who battle tirelessly every election to maximize voter participation and minimize voter intimidation. His first State of the Union address is a paean to those who have joined together throughout history to change our country for the better.

We are in crisis today. The greed of fat cat bankers has unleashed a torrent of predatory lending and a trickle of permanent loan modifications that together are turning homeowners into the homeless. The unemployment rate for Americans of all colors is over 10 percent, Black and Brown American unemployment hovers above 15 percent.

The jobless rate among African- American men in many cities is over 50 percent. Approximately 50 million Americans lack health insurance. More than 50 million people in America -- disproportionately children -- don’t get enough to eat.

The President unveiled new polices to support working families. He reiterated his commitment to rein in some of the worst excesses of Wall Street, and pledged his enduring dedication to bring health care to millions of uninsured Americans. He expressed his forceful and compassionate commitment to the people of Haiti -- a swift, comprehensive response to the human tragedy that stands in stark contrast to his predecessor’s reaction to the thousands victimized by Hurricane Katrina President Obama outlined the right agenda-- one that is pro civil rights, pro human dignity, and pro the American Dream for every American.

However, he cannot do it without us.

Predatory banks, profit-driven health care CEOs, and those big business leaders who would see our country and our families go bankrupt before they would pay their own way (or even a living wage) are committed to funding a fierce battle for the status quo.

The Supreme Court, still dominated by those who helped steal the election in 2000 and their protégés, has unleashed unlimited amounts of corporate dollars into the political landscape with its ruling this month on campaign finance reform. President Obama has vowed to fight. He has pledged to reverse the worst impact of the Supreme Court decision. Yet without each of us fully engaged, loads of greedy multi-national corporate treasure will be used to crush his agenda and those who support it for simply daring to do the people's will.

Still we can win. Organized people ultimately trumps organized money.

But without you and all your friends and neighbors back on the battlefield, sowing and reaping the power of we, there is no guarantee progress will continue. Like every great wave, the one that made it possible for a black family to live in the White House must be regenerated, or it ebbs. More importantly, our communities’ and families’ fates, which are in perilous condition, will ebb with it.

We can be proud of the progress President Obama has made —implementing policies to stem massive job losses, extending health care coverage to millions of children, stabilizing the economy, increasing women's ability to ensure fair treatment in the workplace, rebuilding the Justice Department and EEOC's ability to protect Americans' basic rights, and restoring our nation's ability to protect its food and water. These are our victories.

Some argue that our president has not pushed hard enough for the change we need. But just as this Administration’s greatest accomplishments lies in the hands of the idealists and organizers, so too must we claim the shortcomings.

In too many instances in the past 12 months we have powered down, left the field for the bleachers, and chosen to play armchair pundit rather than continue to build and lead. If our president is not bold enough, it is up to us to build the next wave for bolder action. The great Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation… want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

We cannot be silent. The change we seek is in our hands.

Benjamin Todd Jealous is President and CEO of the NAACP

A Good Start for Obama, But Much More to do

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After one year in office, America's first Blackberry President has found that in the age of tweeting, texting and daily polling, there is no shortage of those eager to judge his performance based on fragments of information that may not always be accurate. We will resist the urge to join the fray. No grades from me for Mr. Obama. But that does not mean we have no opinion on his first year as President.

Any assessment of President Obama's first year must take into account the big mess he inherited on day one - two wars, a great and growing recession, the imminent collapse of our financial system and auto industry, a dysfunctional Justice Department, an unsustainable health care system and job losses that were being measured in the hundreds of thousands each month.

Clearly, our ship of state was spinning dangerously out of control.

And clearly, President Obama has kept it from sinking.

Our financial system is on the rebound. The auto industry was saved.

The Justice Department, under Attorney General Eric Holder, is now focused more on protecting citizen rights than political privilege. And while solutions to rising unemployment continue to elude us, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, during 2009, monthly job losses moderated substantially. They shrank from an average of 691,000 a month in the first quarter to an average loss of 69,000 a month in the fourth quarter.

So, I suggest we slow down and not judge the President based on one year of emergency course corrections. In my view, he should be judged at the end of his first term by the famous question Ronald Reagan posed during his 1980 campaign: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" One thing is clear: We won't be better off if we don't all roll up our sleeves and remember that "government of the people," means we all have work to do.

We won't be better off if the minority party in Congress continues to vote strictly down party lines in opposition to everything the President wants to do - from passing a stimulus plan to health care reform. We won't be better off if we don't take decisive steps to reduce rising unemployment which now stands at 10 percent overall and 16.2 percent for African Americans.

We won't be better off unless we heed the words of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert who recently wrote, "Without a dramatic new intervention by the federal government the poverty rate for African American children could eventually approach a heartstopping 50%. . .already a third of Black children are living in poverty."

One year ago, the election of America's first Black President was a symbol of this country's evolving racial maturity. But symbolism is not substance. While we applaud the President for moving the country from the brink of disaster, we have a lot more work to do before he and all of us can claim that we are better off than the day he took office.

Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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