Power, Poverty and Democracy

March 18, 2017

Power, Poverty and Democracy

Remarks by Dr. Lenora Fulani at the Ninth Biennial National Conference of Independents. 

Good afternoon everybody. Maybe today I’ll work on what you have to do to become a “sung hero.”  I’m really thrilled to be here and you all look just  wonderful.

What I wanted to do was to speak to the issue of democracy, the poor, and power and I want to dedicate the time that I have to share with you to the contributions of poor women (primarily black and Latino) who stepped forward to help shape, give direction to, and create our connections to poor communities of color who have and do serve as the base of our successes. They are: Nita Brooks, Lorraine Stevens, Vera Hill, and Mary Rivera. They are not here today, but they live in our history. I come from them, was surrounded by them growing up.  It was these women throughout my childhood – which included my sisters, cousins and Mom – primarily also because of their suffering and guts, from whom I developed my posture and a sense that I had not only a right, but a well-appreciated obligation to stand up and speak out.  

I remember at 16 in my Baptist Church in Chester, PA in response to my minister’s decision to fire our beloved gay youth pianist, I organized the other young people in church to stand and turn their backs on him in the midst of his sermon and to walk out. (Applause). That wasn’t my mother’s response!  Later that day my mom said to me:  Can’t you just go to church and pray like everyone else!?  And she then gave me a hug!  And we won that fight.

In writing this I was also reminded of a conversation that I had with Dr. Fred Newman, who has played such a huge role in everything we’ve done over the last 30, 40 years. I had a conversation with him after I stood on a chair in a meeting in Harlem in 1992 where Bill Clinton was speaking. I wanted to get his attention. Both Clinton and I were running for President and he had refused to support my inclusion in a Presidential debate earlier and at that point — when they wouldn’t let me in the debate — I had raised the most money of any candidate, at least for the moment.  And I told Clinton in New Hampshire, which is where we were, that when he came to Harlem, I was going to tell the black community what he did.  And I did!  So, Fred just looked at me because this picture was on the front page of newspapers around the country with me standing on this chair…but he never, ever, ever told me not to stand up.

Today in this room are people from around the country who are standing up – men and women standing up for activism and standing up for democracy.  And I am deeply proud to be here with all of you.  The fight comes in many forms including helping to develop the voice of the poor who have been abandoned and abused by the traditional parties.  And when the country is not doing great, they suffer the most.  Amongst us is an activist group who are a part of the All Stars Project — the Committee for Independent Community Action.  They are currently involved in a fight to prevent the City of New York from privatizing New York City’s public housing which would lead to the displacement of 600,000 people to shelters and to the streets.  This process has already begun.  Our Mayor says there are 60,000 people on the streets. But any number is too many. So, talk about disenfranchisement!  

This destruction of housing developments has happened already to the poor in the cities of Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, creating desperation and chaos.  And when the newspapers report on the increasing gun violence in Chicago, they never tie it to the poverty and desperation of these communities, abandoned by our so-called democracy, left to lead lives of hell.  The CICA, like Dr. King’s activists, come from some of the poorest communities in the City, serving as leaders and foot soldiers for this fight for the rights of the poor.  They have collected over 14,000 signatures in our effort to organize others to support this fight.

Several months ago, one of our elected officials described the attack on New York City housing projects as a “tragic necessity.”  There are many circumstances in our nation’s history which could have been described as a “tragic necessity.”  If the nation had decided slavery was a “tragic necessity” and treated it as such, we would still be enslaved as black folks.  What “tragic necessity” simply means is that things are what they are and we won’t take a step to change them.  And in this case it exposes how much of our political leadership is in the pockets of the developers and they will speak neither for the poor, nor middle class, who is threatened by these extreme changes that are happening in America, on the ground, day in and day out. So not only must the poor stand up and grow and be activists, they must – as they did in the battles with Dr. King and others – they have to stand up and lead the way.  

What’s actually tragic is what passes for political leadership in the nation.  And I am not speaking here of Donald Trump.  In fact, it might be more useful for his detractors to do the work of assessing how he came to be.  And instead of simply protesting his presence, do the hard, challenging and difficult work of figuring out what needs to be done in order to create a political process that works on behalf of, and supports, we the people!

The message that I want to underscore today is the role that poor people — be they white or of color — have to play and have played in the fight for democracy and democratic rights in our nation.  Democracy is not only about voting rights: what it’s supposed to represent is visibility and power.  One of the ways that America’s poor is disenfranchised is that they’re kept hidden, discussed only in newspaper stories about being on welfare, having too many children, and violence.

In 1968, at the age of 18, I traveled with one of my sisters to Washington D.C. to Dr. King’s Resurrection City. Dr. King’s plan was to make visible America’s poor to the nation and to the world. I was poor and I was deeply impacted upon and organized by the potential of the poor in exposing its poverty and exercising its power.  There were thousands of people there, black, Latino and white.  The scene was both heartbreaking and somewhat hopeful.  Dr. King knew the importance of putting America’s poor on stage – not just before the country, but before the world.  Unfortunately, he was murdered in the midst of this and others failed to build off of it. He died before he was able to invest what he had organized into the ongoing struggle for democracy and the rights for the American people.

I want to end my presentation by bringing into this dialogue the voice of one of the most powerful figures, leaders and spokespersons for the democratic rights of the poor and the disenfranchised.  Fannie Lou Hamer knew that the poor had to stand up and fight for its rights while organizing others to stand with them.  She also knew about the role and the importance of taking on our democratic rights and taking on the parties that stood in our way. I believe, if Fannie was here with us today, she would be at the forefront of these fights for democracy, and for housing, and always, always, always, against the disenfranchisement of poor people in this country. Fannie was a voting rights activist. She was a civil rights leader and a philanthropist. She was instrumental in organizing the Mississippi’s Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Later she became the Vice Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.  Let’s take a look at this powerful woman.

[VIDEO – includes introduction of Dr. Fulani by Tom Williams and Catana Barnes and clip of Fannie Lou Hamer]

So in ending, I guess it’s not too difficult to figure out which of the two I follow! And that the movements that we’ve been creating for democracy follow. There has to be in a plan for democratizing America, a plan for growing the poor, and part of the leadership is going to come from the poor, not because they’re going to get elected, but because the poor people in this country have been at the forefront of almost every battle that we’ve ever waged. So its an honor to be here with you. Let’s fight for democracy and let’s strengthen our fight against poverty. Thank you.

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