From a civil rights to a human rights movement

The following is the transcript of a speech given by Emmett Carson on January 15, 2018 at the African American Community Service Agency 38th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration

Emmett Carson
Emmett Carson
CEO and President,
Silicon Valley Community Foundation

Good afternoon. I am honored to be with you today to reflect on, remember and celebrate one of America’s most remarkable and extraordinary heroes—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to thank Milan Balinton for his generous introduction. He has brought an infectious energy and enthusiasm to the important work of the African American Community Service Agency. I also want to recognize my wife, Dr. Jacqueline Copeland Carson, who obviously gets her beauty from her mother, Willette Copeland, who is here as well. And, I want to acknowledge my boss, Samuel Johnson, Jr., board chair of Silicon Valley Community Foundation and his wife, Della. Sam, I want to thank you for your stellar leadership of the community foundation.

When Milan called and extended the invitation to speak, I told him that I wasn’t sure whether I would have a lot or a little to say. I also told him that I didn’t know whether saying a lot or a little would be a good thing or a bad thing. I said this because of my deep and growing belief that our nation’s democracy is at grave risk. I am keenly aware that whenever I speak publicly I am the spokesperson for Silicon Valley Community Foundation. I’m proud that the community foundation is a local and national leader helping individuals, families and corporations achieve their philanthropic goals locally, nationally and around the world. The community foundation is a big tent of varied interests and ideas about how to make our community and our world better places.

Like all nonprofit organizations, the community foundation is required by law to be nonpartisan and nonpolitical. Nonpartisan simply means that the nonprofit organization does not have a preference for a particular political party or candidate. Nonpolitical means that the nonprofit organization is not motivated or concerned with the political implications of its actions.

Unfortunately, too many people, even those within the nonprofit sector, incorrectly interpret this as meaning that nonprofit organizations are prohibited from advocating or lobbying on behalf of public policy issues. If this were true, Dr. King could not have done all the things we are here to celebrate through the nonprofit organization he founded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Unlike private foundations, which represent private interests and are prohibited from lobbying in favor or against legislation, community foundations have diverse community boards, hundreds of donors and can, by law, directly lobby on behalf of their values. Silicon Valley Community Foundation actively lobbies at the local, county, state and federal levels on issues of housing, education, immigration and income inequality. I provide you with this context because I have decided that I have a lot to say.

To do anything less than to speak truth to power given current events would dishonor the life and legacy of the man who we are here to honor. A man who said to remember him as being a drum major for justice, a drum major for peace and a drum major for righteousness. A man who asked that we remember that he tried to give his life serving others; that he tried to love somebody; that he tried to be right on the war question; that he did try to feed the hungry; that he did try to clothe those who were naked; that he did try to visit those who were in prison and that he tried to love and serve humanity.

The preamble of our Constitution proclaims:

“WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

In his historic speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. King asked that the nation make good on the Constitution’s promise. He said:

“… we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing∙ a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men‐yes, black men as well as white men‐would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And so today, we find ourselves in a country that seems no longer to proclaim justice and liberty for all. The promissory note that Dr. King felt the country owed to every American that had been marked “insufficient funds” is today marked “account closed” and “return check to sender.” The question before all of us isn’t, “What would Dr. King do?” We know the answer. The question is, “What will each of us do to confront the challenges threatening our democracy?”

  • At this very moment, we have U.S. citizens struggling for their lives in Puerto Rico who are in desperate need of water, food, shelter and medical supplies, while our country’s leaders ponder how much the relief effort will cost.
  • We bear witness to incontrovertible evidence of global warming. As our oceans rise and 500‐year floods and storms happen with increasing frequency, our country’s leaders choose to withdraw from global climate agreements.
  • We understand the need to require everyone who drives to have auto insurance, while we have passed tax reform that is estimated to result in 13 million Americans withdrawing from the healthcare system, with promises to take it away from the remaining 17 million other Americans. I would observe that Dr. King once said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

Silicon Valley Community Foundation is a steadfast champion for inclusiveness, diversity and the acceptance of immigrants in our community. And so, President Trump’s comments and actions on race, diversity and immigration are especially troubling as we remember Dr. King’s dream of racial equality.

  • We have a president who is advised by “alt‐right” white nationalists and has refused to denounce either the ideology or the violence of neo‐Nazis and white supremacists.
  • We have a president who has spent more time talking about the appropriateness of the name of the Black Lives Matter movement and whether NFL players should take a knee during the national anthem than he has spent on the reasons for their actions — the unjustified murders of African American men and boys by rogue police officers engaged in domestic terrorism.
  • We have a president who has put in motion efforts to deport 800,000 undocumented immigrant children who know no home other than America. What would Dr. King, who was called the Dreamer, say and do about efforts to deport kids who are called Dreamers?
  • We have a president who at the end of 2017 announced that 300,000 Salvadoran and Haitian refugees who have been working and paying taxes must now leave the United States.
  • And, unbelievably and painfully, on this very day that the nation observes, remembers and recommits to Dr. King’s dream of racial equality and inclusion, we have a president who must publicly state that he isn’t a racist, following widespread reports that he referred to immigrants coming from El Salvador, Haiti and the 54 nations on the African continent as coming from “shithole” countries, while wanting more immigrants from places like Norway.

These statements and actions are not reflective of an America created by immigrants to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty for all. To illustrate just how far we have moved away from the universal values that were once widely accepted about what America stands for, let me offer this quote:

“How sacred is our trust—we to whom God has given the custody of the name and the song of freedom. America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’”

Who spoke these words about America’s promise and song of freedom for immigrants? – wait for it – former President Ronald Reagan. The question for us at this moment is: Will the America of the future offer the promise of a better life for all or only a few? In addition to these national questions, we have issues of fairness to address here in California if we are to remain true to Dr. King’s dream.

  • California’s traffic fines are among the highest in the country, totaling $400 or more for a single ticket. African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately stopped and ticketed and therefore more subject to these fines. The community foundation is supporting SB 185 to change this. Join us.
  • Notwithstanding championing a new state law, SB 359, that requires 8thgrade children to be placed in mathematics classes based on their test scores and not subjective teacher assessments, we have learned that some school districts are violating the law by continuing to have some students, typically African American and Latino students, repeat the same math course in 9thgrade that they had passed in 8thgrade. The community foundation is committed to ensuring that the law is enforced. Join us.
  • East Palo Alto is unable to engage in business development that would bring jobs and housing to their community because of their limited water allotment. Yes, you heard me correctly; their water allotment has been constrained due to agreements made before they were even incorporated. Why should East Palo Alto be unable to take advantage of Silicon Valley’s tech boom, unlike the adjacent cities of Mountain View and Palo Alto, which have more water than they are able to use? The community foundation will be bringing attention to this inequity in the coming weeks. Join us.
  • Here in San Jose, the community foundation has begun partnering with the police department to improve police‐community relations so that we can minimize and seek to avoid the distrust and anger that rightfully exists in my hometown of Chicago and other major cities. Join us.

When I was growing up, I used to feel disappointed that I had been born too late for the Civil Rights Movement. I felt that I received all of the benefits without having to make any of the sacrifice. Attending Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater, I was instilled with the idea that we all have a responsibility to serve a greater good.

In a global society in which we are all increasingly interconnected, I have come to believe that yesterday’s Civil Rights Movement is today’s Human Rights Movement. When the history of this time period is written, will they say of us, as we can say of Dr. King and those who marched with him, that we have been drum majors for justice, drum majors for peace and drum majors for righteousness? If they can, we will have honored Dr. King in the most meaningful way possible.

Thank you.