For the first time since President Obama took office, a group of African American civil rights leaders presented President Obama with a formal agenda.
The document, first entitled Towards a New Civil Rights Movement for Economic Empowerment and Justice, is now called 1963-2013: 21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom, has been two years in the making. The first meeting on the report, which makes up an informal “black agenda,” was led by National Urban League (NUL) President Marc Morial and took place onDecember 3, 2012.
A second meeting was held on January 25, 2013. Over 60 civil rights activists, academics and elected officials contributed to creating the document which includes agenda items such as opposing mandatory minimum sentencing to the Urban Jobs Act authored by Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). The agenda can be seen on NUL’s site here.
The initial version of the agenda was first introduced publicly in August 2013 during the week commemorating the 5oth anniversary of the March on Washington. Today was the first time the document was presented at the White House to President Obama.
Five urgent goals were listed in the agenda presented by Morial to the President today:
- Achieve Economic Parity for African-Americans
- Promote Equity in Educational Opportunity
- Protect and Defend Voting Rights
- Promote a Healthier Nation by Eliminating Healthcare Disparities
- Achieve Comprehensive Criminal Justice System Reform
“We talked extensively about the challenges of unemployment, the challenges of under-employment, the challenges of black and urban and brown unemployment in this nation,” Morial said as he left the White House meeting today.
On February 11, Attorney General Holder announced his support for felon voting rights and other reforms at a forum on criminal justice in Washington. The U.S. continues to be number one in the world in the rate of incarceration with 2.3 million people behind bars.
Two bills in the House and the Senate, the Fair Sentencing Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act, enjoy bipartisan support from Tea Party Senators as well as Democrats who have been pushing reform for over two decades. Democrats Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA), who are also members of the House Over-Criminalization Task Force, have been joined by Tea Party Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee on criminal reform legislation. Attorney General Holder has joined them with a strong focus on criminal justice for the first time in at least 30 years.
As she left the White House today, NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill said, “we were deeply gratified to hear both the President and the Attorney General’s commitment in describing the ways in which they stand united in some of the efforts to ensure that our criminal justice system reduces racial disparities and doesn’t break communities, as our current criminal justice system is doing.”
On February 27, the President will announce the details of My Brother’s Keeper, a new initiative focused on Black males. President Obama’s policies on health care reform, the signing of the Fair Sentencing Act which lessened the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, appointing former Rep. Mel Watt as FHFA Director, and the appointment of the highest percentage of federal judges so far of any President in history are actions that will or already have benefited Black Americans.
But the wealth gap betweenblack and whites in America is the biggest in 25 years. TheU.S. child poverty rate is one of the highest in the world for developed nations, and the Black unemployment rate hit a 28 year high in late 2011. The number of Americans living in poverty hit a 52 year high in 2011 – with 27% of Blacks under the poverty line.
Other constituencies who supported President Obama by large margins in both 2008 and 2012 have seen many of their agenda items cross the victory line primarily because of a specific legislative strategy agenda presented to the President in 2009.
On gay rights, the policy victories have been extensive as President Obama and the Attorney General have been active in their of many policies the gay lobby has pushed with the first meeting with gay advocates being in June 2009. These include support of gay marriage, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Law, a strategy for U.S. government agencies to combat LGBT human rights abuses internationally, aggressive support of ENDA, opposition to DOMA and many others. On February 10, Attorney General Holder announced what gay rights groups defined as a historic change in federal policy: A comprehensive expansion of legal benefits and services for same-sex married couples.
Regarding policies that Hispanic groups have pushed hard for, there have been several victories. In June 2012, President Obama signed an executive order to enact the Dream Act, the 2009 selection of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, the first ever Hispanic Policy conference at the White House in 2011,and the . The President also told Hispanic leaders in January 2013, days after his second inaugural, that immigration was “his top legislative priority.” Still, many Hispanic leaders are very unhappy with the record number of deportations during the Obama’s presidency.
Other topics discussed at today’s meeting with Black leaders were income inequality, the minimum wage, the Affordable Care Act and criminal justice reform.
Participants at today’s White House meeting with the President and the Attorney General were: Morial, Ifill, Melanie Campbell, President, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Wade Henderson, President, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Lorraine Miller, Interim President NAACP, Patricia Rosier, President, National Bar Association and Al Sharpton, President, National Action Network.