Every February, People For the American Way, along with the rest of the country, celebrates Black History Month. And this year, more than ever, it’s humbling to see just how far our nation has moved. And how far we still have to go.
I’m proud that People For the American Way can point to its own history to demonstrate why Black History Month is relevant to people of all backgrounds. Barbara Jordan was the first African American woman to serve in the Texas State Senate, the first African American woman to represent a southern state in Congress, and one of the founders of People For the American Way.
In 1981, when U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan joined Norman Lear to form People For the American Way, they understood that the promise of our nation, that all men (and women) are created equal, was not just unrealized, but was under active attack. But instead of focusing on what was wrong with our country, they used their powerful, utterly unique voices to speak for America’s highest ideals and to push forward towards a better America.
Rep. Jordan was an energetic advocate of our Constitution’s core values of fairness and equality under law. She continues to be an inspiration in our work, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s because of leaders like Barbara Jordan that we were all able to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama last month.
But still, there are those who are intent on dragging us backwards. While the inauguration was still fresh in our minds, People For was forced to lead an aggressive campaign to help confirm President Obama’s Attorney General nominee, Eric Holder — the first African American to hold the position. After eight years spent undermining the crucial work of the Department of Justice, the Right is fighting hard to prevent the new administration from truly restoring justice at the DOJ. This is why Attorney General Holder’s comments about the racism in America ring true to so many of us in this constant battle against those who would turn back the clock on civil rights. And just last week we all got an ugly reminder of this pervasive racism and racial insensitivity in America when the New York Post published an offensive cartoon depicting President Obama as a chimp getting shot by two white police officers. The cartoon literally included several layers of tastelessness: the comparison of our first African American president to an ape, what could be construed as an invitation for violence against the president AND the stirring up of racial issues with law enforcement in a city that has particularly sensitive recent history in that area.
Many have pointed out that the lack of diversity in senior management and on the editorial staff of the Post was a major contributing factor to how a cartoon like that could get published in the first place. That’s why I’m proud that People For and our affiliate foundation have taken so seriously our mission to help promote diversity. It can be seen very clearly in People For the American Way Foundation’s leadership development programs, the Young Elected Officials Network and Young People For, which are among the most diverse programs of their kind — ever. And it can be seen in our groundbreaking efforts to promote equality for all, like with People For Foundation’s work with African American ministers to combat homophobia in the Black Church.
We’re working hard to make sure that civil rights remain a top priority for this administration, and fighting against those who are intent on erecting barriers to the ballot, not to mention advocating for a more just Supreme Court, organizing for marriage equality for all and defending religious liberty by maintaining the separation between church and state.
Barbara Jordan made clear that there are certain principles that are not negotiable, values she called “indigenous to the American idea.” Opportunity. Fairness. Equality under law. Those are still the values that bind our community together, and every day we’re moving closer to that nation that she envisioned.