WASHINGTON — With determined strides, warm hugs and the steely glint of struggling for justice in their eyes, over 20,000 African American leaders from all walks of life, from students to Ph.D.s, from business executives to workers, from elected officials to precinct captains, and from award-winning artists to a high school marching band, streamed into the 37th annual Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference here, Sept. 26-29.
With the 2008 election showdown on the horizon, a determined Marion Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, told this reporter (looking at me dead in the eye), “It’s movement time. Now is the time for local organizing to create the big noise, standing for children. We know what to do. We know what works.”
Edelman said children’s advocates “are not wanted in politics because we shift the spotlight from profits and personal wealth to our children, our future.”
But that is not going to slow this veteran children’s advocate down. She said the key is “local organizing for a big noise.”
If ever a conference informed and inspired grassroots organizing — family by family, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood — it was this one, focusing on issues like ending the Iraq war and occupation, single-payer health care, affordable housing, Katrina, education, HIV/AIDS prevention, economic development, voting rights, dignity and equality, global warming, the criminal justice system and a host of others.
The “outpouring of outstanding Americans” in Jena, La., just a week before turned the conference theme, “Unleashing Our Power,” into reality, said Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida in his welcoming address. CBC chairwoman Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick of Michigan announced that all 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with the families of the Jena Six students and called for all to “unleash your power for a just society and build God’s kingdom on earth.”
Founding CBC member and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Rep. John Conyers, also of Michigan, told participants that hearings are scheduled on the case surrounding the six African American high school students.
The CDF’s Edelman told a packed town hall meeting titled “Disrupting the Prison Pipeline” that “The only child policy in our country is prison or detention.
“The most dangerous place for a child to try to grow up in America is at the intersection of poverty and race,” she said. “That a Black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance, and a Latino boy a one in six chance, of going to prison in their lifetimes is a national disaster. And it says to millions of our children, and to the world, that America’s dream is not for all. It is not right, sensible or necessary to have 13 million poor children in a $13.3 trillion economy.”
Saying that the federal and state governments currently spend three times more on prisons than schools, Edelman demanded a change in national policy, including spending that replaces the “cradle to prison pipeline” with a “cradle to college mainline.”
The cover of the Children’s Defense Fund report on the state of America’s children of color, which was available at the meeting and which can be found at www.childrensdefense.org, says it all. It depicts an African American child standing on a milk crate being finger printed by a police officer.
Conyers was late to his workshop, “Health Care for All Now,” because it was so crowded. Attendees filled every seat, lined the wall, stood four-deep in the rear and queued in the hall waiting for admittance. Conyers is the author of HR 676, the single-payer “Medicare for All Act,” which has 84 co-sponsors.
Presidential candidate and HR 676 co-sponsor Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio along with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota joined a distinguished panel of doctors, health care professionals and actress Fran Drescher (“The Nanny”) who outlined the vital data and arguments for passage of this legislation. There was not an insurance company in the house. James Carville, former campaign strategist for President Clinton, dropped in on the workshop offering his humor, support and sound bites including: “A criminal has a right to see a lawyer; why not a working person a right to see a doctor?”
The annual CBC Legislative Conference is also a celebration. Poets, actors and authors filled the evenings. Jazz, hip-hop and gospel music lit up the corridors.
The CBC is one of the largest and most community-embedded groupings in Congress. In addition to providing scholarships and opportunities, the caucus meets with foreign leaders, introduces a yearly “alternative budget” focused on the people, hosts monthly town hall meetings and champions on the national stage for civil and human rights and economic justice. Their web site is www.thecongressionalblackcaucus.com.