National President Wilson, State President Moore, distinguished guest, officers and members of the council, ladies and gentlemen.
Tonight I consider it a single honor and I am very pleased to have this opportunity to participate in the program of your 15th annual conference.
I first heard about your spring meeting last summer from your outstanding President Emeritus, my lifelong friend and high school classmate, Dr. Moses Jones. When Dr. Jones first mentioned the possibility of my being your speaker, my first action was to decline on the grounds that I had retired. That is a standard excuse which I have used since retirement to avoid speaking engagements. Sometimes when avoidance seems difficult, I take the liberty to offer my busy, beloved son, Judge Meeks, Jr., as the sacrificial lamb to take my place. I want you to know that I thought about that easy escape route this time. But when I began to reflect back on the years when Dr. Jones and I were kids, when we were poor together, hungry together, ragged together, I changed my mind. I suddenly remembered how we use to build air castles of fame and fortune. I remembered how we use to talk about what we were going to be and how and what we were going to do and to whom when we grew up. We discussed how we we re going to shake the earth and move the world. While thinking the matter over, it became abundantly clear that here was a golden opportunity to realize a boyhood dream. It was also clear that the mere fact that Dr. Jones was in a position to suggest my name as a speaker before this great fraternity which has done so much good in the world undoubtedly was among the many air castles he and I had built long ago. The invitation to speak became not only one I could not refuse, but one which I was glad to accept.
Of course, Dr. Jones could have found many speakers, including my son, who could have done a much better job than I can, but he didnÕt know that. And after I decided that I really wanted to be on the program, I wasnÕt about to tell him that he could do better. In that regard I am reminded of the man who had been called to court for jury duty, but who wanted to be excused. The judge asked him to state his reason for wanting to be excused. He said, ÒJudge, I operate a certain machine at the shop where I work and IÕve got to be there.Ó The judge asked, ÒArenÕt there any other employees there who can do your job?Ó Whispering and approaching the bench, he told the judge, ÒYes, your Honor, but my boss doesnÕt know that.Ó He was excused.
Your spring conference comes at a time when our problems as Black people are greater, more puzzling, and complex than at any other period within this decade. At the same time, life itself has become a challenge for everyone in the world regardless of race. The Soviet Union and our country are now in a diplomatic stalemate on the question of nuclear disarmament. Continued failure and refusal of these giant powers to reach an agreement in this baffling issue could lead to World War III and the subsequent end of all civilization. One fourth of all the people in the world live in China, but this nationÕs continued sales of arms to Taiwan strains our governmentÕs relations with Peking. West Germany, one of AmericaÕs allies, now finds itself in an economic bind which forcFes it to seek markets in the Soviet East and Arab world. Political settlement of the trouble in Central America seems next to impossible as the conflict in the Middle East continues to take lives everyday. In far off South Africa hundreds of Black women and children are left homeless when government recking crews demolish their humble homes in Cape Town on the grounds that they are illegally living in white areas. Here at home we continue to face high unemployment, high interest rates, high prices, and a high crime rate. As Black Americans not only do we have to bear the burden of world and national unrest as others do, but we must also bear the extra superficially imposed burden of just being Black.
Sometimes it seems that all of our lives we have suffered the struggling pains of segregation and discrimination and this extra inhuman burden must be borne by us as we join our nonBlack brothers and sisters in seeking to solve the problems of the universe. Throughout the years some of our pains and burdens have been eased, lightened or allayed by our prayers, by the judicial decisions of the courts of law, by the help of our fair-minded liberal friends, and by our own hard work and determination to overcome and succeed.
By the year 1972 we as a race had made some significant strides on the road to first class citizenship. So sweeping were some of our successes in having many barriers removed, that some of us were lured into a false sense of security with the belief that we had no more burdens to bear, that our worries were over, and that we had no more need to be vigilant and fight for right. In short, we thought we had it made. Why were we so complacent and so satisfied with our progress? Why were we willing to sit down? Why were we willing to count our blessings and fight no more? What was the nature of our gains?
Tonight, I have come to urge you (if you will) to take inventory of those precious gains and determine where our stock of rights stands. All of us are keenly aware of the fact that as early as the year 1954 the celebrated case of the Brown vs the Topeka Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States-outlawing racial segregation in the nations public schools. Pr%ior to that historical decision, the old unfair and despicable doctrine of separate but equal had prevailed. I vividly remember when some of you and I walked from home, at times in subzero weather, several blocks pass a separate white school, in order to attend a so-called equal Black school. Prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, Blacks were involuntarily confined to ghettos all over the United States. Because of that act, Blacks can today live almost anywhere.
In 1964, Title 7, job discrimination law, was written in the books and soon thereafter the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came into being. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed job discrimination based on race, sex, religion or national origin, the commission administering the act was limited to merely investigating charges of discrimination and requesting the employer to mend his ways voluntarily. In other words if an employer after an investigation was found guilty of job discrimination, the commission would say, ÒPlease Mr. Steel Company or Mr. Packing Company or Mr. Railroad Company, will you kindly stop discriminating against Blacks.Ó The only certain remedy under the act was a suit by a job discrimination victim himself, provided he could find the time and bear the expense. After much pressure was brought in 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was passed, empowering the commission to sue an employer charged with discriminatory hiring. This put the necessary teeth in the law.
In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination in the most important area of civil rights. Before that act was passed, Blacks had little if any share of political power in a majority of places in the South. Few Blacks were registered. Few held elective offices. If a Black did hold an elective office, it was a minor one and in an area where Blacks constituted an overwhelming majority of the population. The methods used to maintain white political control since reconstruction da”ys had gradually evolved with new techniques replacing those which courts had held unconstitutional. By 1965 the most common methods used to keep Blacks away from the polls were literacy test. These tests were usually unfairly administered. Physical and economic intimidation were also used to discourage political participation by Blacks. The Voting Rights Act dealt with these problems and provided the tools for assuring that Blacks could no longer be excluded from the political life of the South. The Act originally passed as a temporary measure to expire in five years, was extended by Congress in 1970 and again in 1975 and it was enlarged to cover several additional areas outside the South.
Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, southern Blacks have become a political force which cannot be ignored. Black elected officials in the South have multiplied so that there are now hundreds ranging from township clerk to mayor of the city, from justice of the peace to judge of the State Supreme Court, and from state legislator to United States Congressman. According to a report recently released by the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, the number of Black elected officials in the United States rose to 5,606 last year, from 5,l60 in 1982. These statistics do not include the thousands of Blacks appointed to public office. The largest gains were made in the South where Mississippi maintained its lead with 433 Black elected officials-a gain of 9 last year. Arkansas added 78, bringing its total to 297 as compared to 236. Oklahoma had an increase of 42, making a current total of 124. Alabama added 40 to make a total of 309. Louisiana elected 36 new Blacks to total 408 as compared to a gain in Illinois of 38 to make that northern stateÕs total 363. The office holders include members of county and municipal governing boards such as city councilmen and county commissioners, members of state education commissions and members of local school boards.
In recent years affirmative action programs have been initiated in the field ofI employment as well as in the field of higher education. Affirmative action as it applies to employment is the obligation of employers to counteract the effects of pass discriminatory practices by hiring minority workers. What happens when an employer is told that he must do certain things to eliminate the present effect of pass discrimination? Now the present situation is the result of a long period of discrimination. Historically, we have had occupations which were reserved for women and occupations which were reserved for white males. Over the years the attitudes, the aspirations, the expectations of people-Black and white-evolved around this norm. There are still industries in which it is said that if you are Black, there are certain jobs you cannot do. Now under Title 7 of the United States Code, when an employer is found to have a work force from which Blacks and females are excluded, that employer is required to change those practices because they are illegal. The employer does this by getting minorities and females into a pool of applicants and by seeing to it that females and minorities are in fact selected for employment. He must do this at least to the point where gross disparities within the work force are corrected and the ÿminorities and females are by virtue of affirmative action policies encouraged to apply. Thousands of Blacks are working today in jobs once closed to minorities because of affirmative action.
Affirmative action as it applies to higher education is the practice of providing special admissions programs which reserve a certain percentage of entrance places for disadvantaged minorities. In the much publicized Allen Baake case, the Davis Medical School of the University of California reserved 16 out of 100 entrance places for Blacks and Spanish applicants. But the United States Supreme Court held that plan to be reverse discrimination and therefore in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. However, the court did allow the use of race as a factor to insure some places for minorities in an effort to remedy the effect of pass and present discrimination so long as no person was entirely insulted from comparison with other applicants.
As a result of Brown vs the Topeka Board of Education, school segregation has been abolished in thousands of districts all over the country and in a limited way, we are enjoying some freedom of education without segregation. As a result of the Fair Housing Act, we are free to choose housing to suit our needs. Since the passage of the Equal Employment Act, we have made much progress in the area of finding jobs and in some instances, we are enjoying new job opportunities once denied and the freedom to find work in accordance with our abilities. The Voting Rights Act is affording us the freedom to register, vote and hold elected public office in states and communities once off limits for the enjoyment of such civil rights. The rights, gains, privileges, and freedoms which I have outlined, make an impressive list when they stand alone without considering how they have been implemented or how well they have been enforced and how effective they are today.
But as we pause and reflect, we discern that our inventory of rights and freedoms may be dwindling and eroding to an alarming degree. We note that court ordered busing is no longer a dependable means of enforcing school desegregation. The Equal Opportunity Commission has grown so weak that in spite of a slight decrease in national unemployment, thousands of Blacks are disproportionately unemployed. According to the National Urban LeagueÕs annual report entitled ÒThe State of Black AmericaÓ, the unemployment rate for Blacks in December 1983 was 17.8% compared to 8.1% for the nation as a whole, or a little over double. Black males 18 and 19 years old had an unemployment rate of 42.7% last fall which was over five times greater than the national average. Yesterday the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a slight decrease in the national unemployment rate, but the rate of Black unemployment still remains more than double that of the nation as a whole. Medium income of Blacks in 1982 was $13,598.00 and for whites $24,593.00. ThatÕs nearly $11,000.00 more for whites.
Today, not only are affirmative action programs being challenged in the courts, but the United States Justice Department is joining the challengers. Recently the U. S. Civil Rights Commission turned its back on affirmative action by criticizing the Detroit, Michigan police department for using quotas favoring the hiring of more Blacks. The U. S. Department of Justice sought a hearing in the matter, but again just this week the justice department joined ten white police officers and fire fighters who claimed that their rights were being violated when the city of Birmingham, Alabama, under an affirmative action decree, promoted some Blacks and women. BirminghamÕs mayor, Richard Arrington, Jr. who as you know is Black, said and I quote, ÒI was greatly disappointed in the position taken by the justice department which is changing sides on a decree that it once helped fashion.Ó Just this past Thursday, while the Kansas Legislature was beginning to consider the enactment of a minority contracts law which would set aside some state construction contracts for Black owned businesses, the U. S. Justice Department began its fight against a similar law already enacted in Florida.
Some of our greatest gains in the Civil Rights Movement have come through the courts. But just recently it has been suggested that the power of the courts be curbed, so that they will be limited, if not prohibited, from making decisions affecting civil rights. If that should happen the cause of human and civil rights could be set back for a century. But we must not let that happen. We must not let that ever happen. We must resist that and all other moves which would set us back. We must not suffer our children or our childrenÕs children to face an uncertain future of resegregated schools, of discriminatory housing, of unfair employment practice, and the denial of the freedom to register and vote. We shall not slide back into the cesspool of social, political, and economic slavery. Our backs will never again bare the bloody welts of the ugly whip of racism. We shall not sit in the easy rocking chair of complacency and watch our freedoms fade away.
To avoid that disaster we know that mere words are not enough. There are those who think that working at our jobs paying taxes, and obeying all the laws will guarantee our freedom of first class citizenship---but being just a good, honest, law abiding citizen is not enough. Being hard workers in our occupations and proficient in our professions is not enough. So if we are to turn back the tide that attempts to push us back into the place we found ourselves after the Civil War and reconstruction days, after World War I and World War II, if we want to keep what we have, recover, what we had and gain what we deserve, we must come together for the common cause of freedom. We must work for the total eradication of the last vestige of second class citizenship.
As a prelude to the accomplishment of those Vgoals, we must carefully choose our leaders in both public and private life. We need strong leaders upon whose characters the most stinging envy can find no stain. Leaders who will be bold, fearless, and uncompromising. Leaders tough enough to weather the storm of temptation. Leaders who will ask ÒWhatÕs in it for us?Ó and not ÒWhatÕs in it for me?Ó Leaders who will fight for right. We must use the powerful weapon of the ballot. We must support those public officials whose records clearly indicate beyond a reasonable doubt that they want freedom for all. If we follow that course, I believe that through our prayers, through our work, through our unselfish dedication to the principles of fair play and freedom and our unfaltering faith in Almighty God, we will succeed.