Capitol Thoughts
Capitol Thoughts Archive

Keep It In Context

Oct 07, 2011

Does the name Shirley Sherrod ring a bell to anyone? If not, maybe you’ve heard her story. Shirley Sherrod was the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the US Department of Agriculture. She spoke at a NAACP event in March 2010 and a few months later, some of her comments were taken out of context and she was accused of racial discrimination in performing the duties of her job. The accusations were so far and wide that she was publicly scorned by high ranking officials in the administration and the NAACP. She was ultimately asked to resign from her appointed position. Shortly after all of the media attention, the full story came out. Shirley Sherrod’s statements were taken out of context. Spliced and cut, they seemed like racist comments, but in full context, it was revealed that she was speaking about how she rose above racism and helped someone in spite of what she may have believed about him.

Two weeks ago during the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, the President and First Lady came to the Phoenix Awards dinner that closes out the conference. I was able to attend the Phoenix Awards and hear the President give a great speech which was the topic of many conversations in the days and even weeks after the event was over. Late last week I was talking with a friend who asked about the speech and was irritated by the closing comments the President made in the speech. The sound bite that was floating around in the media was,

“Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on.”

Some individuals in the media and around the water cooler were making comments that the President was being too hard on black people and saying that he wouldn’t have made those comments to any other group.

But let’s keep it in context.

There is a lot that is missed by focusing on those last few words of his speech, omitting others and not understanding the source of the comments being made. Every now and again, I hear black people saying, “What has the President done for us?” That question doesn’t start or end

with blacks who are struggling in dire financial straits in hard hit communities across this country. It includes blacks who are multi-degreed and own their homes, blacks who are the first in the family to go to college, and politicians both in Washington, DC and in communities around the country. Further, there have been people who haven’t just asked what he has done for us, but have called the President out saying that he hasn’t done enough. Additionally, the President has faced criticism from some of the CBC members over the last year. Finally, the President’s job’s bill must get passed in Congress and the CBC is what he referred to as the “conscience of the Congress”. That is the contextual background needed to understand the elements of the speech.

And so the President addressed the CBC and a room of mostly black people. The President began his speech by talking about Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, a pioneer of the civil rights movement. Throughout his speech, the President made references to the civil rights movement and weaved it in with what is happening in our country right now. He addressed the question of what has he done for black people – specifically mentioning the Earned Income Tax Credit that “benefited nearly half of all African American children in this country.” He spoke about the money invested in early childhood education, community college and HBCUs. He referenced the Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods and Strong Cities, Strong Communities that are helping cities that have a black majority like Cleveland and Detroit. He highlighted how the American Jobs Act will help everyone, including black people. Then the President turned to the obstacles he’s faced with being able to garner support from the other party.

Toward the end of the speech, the President addressed people getting discouraged and how black people have a history of perseverance in achieving progress. He referenced the civil rights movement and the trials that blacks have faced, saying, “Even when folks are hitting you over the head, you can’t stop marching. Even when they’re turning the hoses on you, you can’t stop.” He spoke of John Lewis, a true hero of the civil rights movement and how he was beaten on Bloody Sunday but had the determination to continue on in the fight and march. And just prior to the last few infamous lines, the President turned his speech to himself, saying that he is going to press on for jobs, for the sake of our children, and struggling families. He said, “I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I am going to press on.”

So in the very last few lines when the President turns the focus back to the CBC, he says,

“I expect all of you to march with me and press on. Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Shake it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do, CBC.”

In the grand scheme of things, the President was not saying that black people are lazy, black people complain too much, or that black people feel sorry for themselves. He was reminding us of our legacy. That though we may have been tired, we pressed on. Though we may have wanted to crawl back in to bed and wake up when it was over, we have pressed on. In context, he was addressing those who say he hasn’t done enough for black people by encouraging them to march on with him. Instead of focusing on what he hasn’t done, focus on what their energy can bring to the fight. It’s a timely message as National Action Network prepares to march for jobs and justice in the spirit of Dr. King and the civil rights era. We at NAN have never stopped marching because we realize there is still too much to fight for. Why speak about it when you can be about it? The time to march is now, and like the President, we hope you will join us on Saturday, October 15th in Washington, DC. As the President said, we’ve got work to do!