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Wade Henderson, Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

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Wade Henderson, Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

May 5, 2004 -  Click here
to listen to Wade Henderson's speech at AJC's 98th Annual Meeting.

Wade Henderson
Executive Director
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
AJC Intergroup Relations in the 21st Century Panel Remarks
May 5, 2004

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Wade Henderson, the Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation's oldest, largest and most diverse civil and human rights coalition. I'm very proud to be here this afternoon. David, great to see you, and colleagues here at the panel, it's a delight to join you for what I think is a very important conference and an especially important conversation.

Before I begin, let me just say that the American Jewish Committee is an important member of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. You are part of the civil rights family, you have been leaders, you have been participants, you have been friends. And so I feel today a special warmth at being here, because I see friends and colleagues, some of whom I've had the privilege of working with over many years, but I think this is an especially appropriate time to have a conference and conversation about intergroup relations. I think most of you are aware that 2004, in addition to being a milestone on many different levels, is the 40th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and also the 50th Anniversary of the Supreme Court's transformative decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education. So this is an especially propitious time I think for us to have a family conversation about the future of coalition politics and civil rights, and where we're going in the 21st Century.

Before I begin, I just want to acknowledge a couple of people in the audience, because there's one person who represents the American Jewish Committee that I have the privilege and pleasure of working with almost on a daily basis, and I just want to acknowledge him. I see Richard Foltin sitting back here, your senior attorney here in D.C., and I want you to do know he does just an outstanding job in representing the interests of this organization as part of the larger civil rights movement. And Richard gets it. He understands that if you want a friend, you have to be a friend, and he understands the essence of coalition politics, and he practices it with great skill and dexterity daily. I see a couple of other colleagues that I met recently or saw recently at the Organization of Security and Cooperation's meeting on anti-Semitism in Berlin, Deidre Berger, who is one of your great organizers from Europe, and who did such an excellent job with the non-governmental organizational involvement in OSCE. And Ken Stern, who is a colleague that I've known for a long time, and I saw Ken in Berlin as well, and, Ken, it's great to see you here. I did want to acknowledge them, because the truth is institutional relationships are really made up of personal relationships. It is those relationships that are pursued on a daily basis that give meaning and context and texture to the conversations we're talking about today.

I'm going to talk a little bit about the Leadership Conference and what we do. I'm going to spend the bulk of my time talking about my perceptions of the OSCE meeting in Berlin, and then I want to spend just a minute talking about what I hope will be the future of the civil and human rights coalition.

Now, the Leadership Conference was founded in 1950, if you can believe that, by giants of the civil and human rights movement. These were individuals who understood that if we were going to take advantage of the extraordinary movement begun by the Supreme Court with its decision in Brown, and fostered by Rosa Parks when she decided to stand up for her rights rather than sitting in the back of the bus, we were going to need an institution made up of institutions that could use their influence to concretize the energy that was being generated in the courts and in the streets, and to enact legislative provisions for significant social change.

What made the Leadership Conference work is that organizations came together as full participating equals, having something both to gain and to lose by their involvement in working collectively. And self interest, rightly understood, was the motivation that helped to bind this fledgling group of activists representing a variety of different organizations with a common goal of helping America become the nation of its founding promise. We all knew that America was itself an extraordinary beacon of hope for the rest of the world as the largest emerging representative democracy of 50 years ago, but we were a living contradiction. We had founding documents that espoused the virtues of democracy, but we lived a lie in the way in which our Constitution applied its rights and privileges and expectations to its own citizens. Both blacks and Jews, and Latinos and others, were outside of the mainstream of the body politic, and we had a common goal and objective of making it real. That bound us together, it helped motivate what I think is one of the great social movements, if not the greatest of the 20th Century. And it continues to set the stage for how we are likely to proceed and should proceed in the future.

Now, we've accomplished a great deal, but much remains to be accomplished. As I reflect on where we are as a nation, just on the very small questions of polices involving public education for example, looking at what Brown promised and where we are today, you know, without question we are a nation far better today than we were 50 years ago, but I don't think anyone would dispute the fact that we have a great deal yet to accomplish. As we look just at the institution of public education, what we have done to resolve fundamental inequalities generated by poverty, by the poor quality of public education, and what it means for the future of this country, we have a tremendous amount to do.

We are not simply bound together by an abstract moral vision, although I'd like to think that the national character of Americans is a moral character. It is one that respects and appreciates the values that this country espouses, and we've internalized those and we've made them our own. But I also think that there is again a recognition of self interest that is really fundamental to the success of any coalition. If we are not able to take the diversity that is America today, bind it together around a common set of values, and allow us to go forward in the 21st Century, the struggles that we are dealing with today will pale in comparison to the struggles of the future. And we need only look overseas at various countries where the issues of Communism and resolving the East-West divide have now been replaced by fundamental questions of how we resolve issues of ethnic conflict.

Now, I could point to obvious examples, the Middle East being of course one, but one could look at Northern Ireland, Bosnia and surrounding states, Rwanda and the genocide of Tutsis and Hutus. All of that is a failure of our ability to bind together a coalition based on mutual respect and appreciation of the strength that diversity presents, and how we take that strength and move forward.

It was one of the reasons that when the Leadership Conference was asked to participate in the most recent meeting of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, to look at the issue of the rise of anti-Semitism, the new anti-Semitism. After some thoughtful deliberation, we decided to jump at what we thought was an important opportunity. It was both an opportunity to take a message abroad that we thought was very useful for the European community to hear, and it was also an important opportunity to learn from the experiences of non-governmental organizations in other countries as they struggle to deal with some of the issues that are likely to be faced by American NGOs in the coming decade.

Now, I just want to give you a couple of examples of what I'm talking about. I was privileged to lead a delegation of about 20 American representatives of non-governmental organizations that are members of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The delegation consisted of people like Dr. Mary Francis Berry, who is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania and head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. It consisted of Bill Lann Lee, the former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Clinton administration, or Barbara Arnwine, who directs the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It included a representative of the National Council of La Raza, who handles issues of Latino-Jewish relationships. It consisted of representatives of the Asian-American community who are part of the growing matrix of organizations making up the Civil Rights Movement.

In effect, we were a delegation that reflected the diversity and strength of the non-governmental organization community and the United States, and we were proud to represent US NGOs at what we thought was a very important meeting. When we walked in the NGO Forum that Deidre helped to organize on Tuesday of last week, and when we participated in some of the governmental sessions at OSCE the following day, we were struck by the, shall we say homogeneous nature of your audience. We were the diversity in the room. We were the only African descendant people, we were the only Latino constituency, we were the only Asian-Americans, we were the only composite delegation of civil and human rights organizations willing to speak out on this issue.

By our very presence at the conference, we helped to symbolize something very important about America. That is, with all this diversity, we can take that strength and we can speak to important issues of the day, and we can shape the discussion in ways that can't possibly be done without a reflection of the diversity that was in the room. And, yes, there is strength in coalitions, because no single organization has enough power unto itself to accomplish its goals unless you are working in coalition with others. Coalition politics is the politics of the 21st Century. And an ample lesson was quite evident from the myriad of Jewish organizations, both from the United States and in Europe, who by their very presence, if you didn't need coalition, you could have accomplished these goals years ago. The truth is you're not going to be able as a community to respond to the growing problem of anti-Semitism unless you are working in coalition with other groups. That was quite evident by the nature and discussion of the official delegates at the conference, representatives of various governments, and the nature of the issues that were on the table.

Now, I know that for some at the conference there was a discussion of whether events in the Middle East, the events of the Sharon government, of the events of the last several months, somehow had contributed to the poisoned atmosphere that may have led to a spike in anti-Semitic violence and activity in Europe. And there are going to be some who will find an easy answer and say, "Well, yes, I mean, but for these problems with Gaza and the Middle East, and if the Sharon government hadn't engaged in provocative decisions, we would not have had these problems." But, as I reminded some of the people who were there, the truth is anti-Semitism predates the modern state of Israel in Europe by many hundreds of years.

In fact, the truth is anti-Semitism as it's manifested in Europe is ingrained in the national character of some of the very states that are now engaging in discussions of our solutions to the problem. That's not an indictment. It is a statement of fact borne out by the historic evidence that comes up time again in a variety of different ways. As if to put a punctuation mark on that sentence, as we were leaving Berlin on Friday I read an article which said that there was a cemetery desecration in France, 130 or so graves marked by the stigmas of World War II, swastikas, and lots of hateful statements. Guys, this is a serious issue, it's an issue that is of concern to us all, and it's an issue that requires the attention of men and women of goodwill.

Now, why do we share this as a common phenomenon? Well, the truth is, the same forces that lead to the kind of anti-Semitic violence that we're talking about are the same forces that oppose the full democratization of countries and the full participation of their own citizens. This is not something that's new. The very foundation of the civil rights movement in this country was borne out of that recognition. I used to be the NAACP's senior attorney and lawyer and lobbyist here in Washington, the Director of its Washington Bureau for many years. I know the founding of the modern civil rights movement. I was a lawyer for the ACLU for over a decade, I was a lobbyist for the ACLU. I know the importance of the protection of the Bill of Rights and First Amendment protections. Without it there would have been no civil rights movement as we know it today. So I appreciate the important strains that come into play in shaping the modern civil and human rights movement and where we're going for the future.

I thought it was important that we make a statement through our participation. I know that it was well received by some of the member states and by organizations like the AJC. And in my view, it is an important current day manifestation of why the civil rights and human rights movement remains relevant to the 21st Century. This is not about looking back in time and celebrating what we accomplished and feeling good about ourselves. It's about looking to the future, recognizing the challenges that we face, and putting together a strategy that keeps us together not because we simply love each other because it's the right thing to do, but because we have a common set of interests and values that keep us working together. That is, in my judgment, the message for today.

Now, I'm going to leave one last piece. And that is, as we struggle to figure out where we're going both as a nation and as a movement for social change, we have to recognize that the work that remains undone is not just along the racial divide. I mean, often when one thinks about the Brown decision, you think about the civil rights movement, you tend to look at it through a black-white prism. The truth is, America was never about just black and white, and certainly today that is more true than ever before. Asians are the fastest growing demographic population in the United States, Latinos have reached the status, superior perhaps in number to African-Americans, but certainly the equivalent. Demographic change is the order of the day.

Managing diversity is going to be the real challenge of the 21st Century as we go forward. And if we are as a nation going to maintain our preeminent status as not just a world power, but as a world leader in offering a moral vision about what democracy provides, we're going to have to make certain that we practice those same policies here at home, and don't face the challenges here that we see affecting some other parts of the world.

Now, one closing set of considerations. I know that this is a tough time for extending the hand of friendship and moving beyond what is often the parochial interest that any community has. I see it in the African-American community. I see it in the Jewish community. But unless we are opening up new lines of discussion among a variety of different groups that make up the fabric of America, then some of the problems that we see in Europe are likely to be visited here. When I look at the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe, and I heard it discussed for a few days among both government officials and NGOs, there was a lot of focus on the new demographic phenomenon of young Muslim males, second generation residents in their own communities, and the inability of the organized Jewish community to reach them in ways in which you can communicate, and the problems that are being dealt with can be understood and facilitated.

Now, what I found fascinating in the conversation is that, well, they were the missing element at the table. There were no young Muslim men. In fact, there were no Muslim representatives in the community at all. And yet the Muslim community in Europe is one of the fastest growing religious movements in each of those countries. Secondly, looking at these young men I thought the focus was somewhat wrong headed. I thought that this notion of talking about them in the third person, as if, you know, these are young people who are not here at the table, was a mistake. They are the citizens of France, the citizens of Germany, the citizens of every OSCE country that was at the table, and they can't be treated as if they are separate and apart from the communities of which they live. They have to be incorporated into the debate and into the dialogue.

The value of a coalition like the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is that we have a history of practicing conversation about tough issues, and we don't shy away from that. We are a family, and sometimes you need to have family conversations, but it is always done within a framework and a spirit that, in my judgment, is conducive to the advancement of our common set of interests. And that was missing, I thought, at the OSCE.

And then lastly, I know that the demographic change that Europe is experiencing is likely to visit the United States in a decade, because the Muslim community is the fastest growing religious community in the United States. But, what binds us together is a recognition that certain manifestations of bigotry or xenophobia or discrimination touch every one of us regardless in what communities we live. So when hate crime violence took a spike upward in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, it didn't just affect Muslims. It did. It didn't just affect people who look like them, like Sikhs for example, the religious community of India who experienced a tragic spike in hate crime violence because the American public, ignorant as they are of foreign policy issues, saw the Sikhs as being Muslim, even though they are not. There was a spike also in anti-Semitic activity. While there is certainly a duty owed by every leader of an organization to speak out fairly and appropriately on the political issues of the day, the demonization of Jews, either in their individual status or collectively, is as wrong today as it was when it perhaps first manifested itself hundreds of years ago, and it's the same as true of other groups.

So, I'm going to leave with this thought. I think that the discussion of intergroup relations and where we are going as a national community of interest has to be framed around an understanding that coalition politics is the challenge of the day. We have many common interests that bind us. We have to be honest about differences when they occur, we have to willing to engage in spirited debate, even among family. But at the end of the day we also have to recognize that we are in the same boat together, and that a failure to perceive correctly our mutual interests may end up precipitating a division that works to no one's advantage at a time when it's most important that we work closely together with an eye to the future.