Obama, Jena and Justice

On the 29th of September, presidential candidate Barack Hussein Obama stood before the student body of Howard University in Washington DC.  Four days earlier, I had occupied the same stage as part of a panel including several Jena 6 parents and a few other criminal justice reform advocates.  I have long been aware that then-candidate Obama talked about Jena when he was at Howard; but until today I hadn’t seen a full transcript of his remarks.

I have placed our president’s comments about Jena and criminal justice reform in bold italics below, and you might want to scroll down to that bit before reading the balance of his address.

This speech shows genuine courage.  As Obama himself acknowledges, candor on the subject of crime and justice can be bad for your political health.  The subject is so politically toxic, in fact, that candidate Obama rarely addressed the subject during the campaign and is unlikely to make it front-and-center as president.  Yet I believe these strong declarative come from the heart and reflect our new president’s genuine values and intentions.

Obama’s speech reflects a deep understanding of the situation in Jena, Lousiana.  Since I am the only commentator who has stressed the full historical context in Jena, I strongly suspect that Obama got much of his information, directly or indirectly, from my initial report.  That’s tremendously encouraging since people in my line of work sometimes wonder if we’re making a difference.

I was deeply gratified to see the attention now-President Obama pays to the Little Rock 9 (they were front-and-center at the inauguration ceremony), and the role President Eisenhower, the Department of Justice and the National Guard played in resolving that dispute.  If the comments below are anything to go by (and I have the courage to believe they are) the DOJ is about to be transformed.

Barack Obama at Howard University, September 29, 2007

To all of the honored and distinguished guests faculty staff and 
students, it is a privilege to be a part of today’s convocation, and 
an honor to receive this degree from Howard.

     Now there are few other universities that have played so central 
a role in breaking down yesterday’s barriers, and inching this 
country closer to the ideals we see inscribed on the monuments 
throughout the city.

     It is because of those victories that a black man named Barack 
Hussein Obama can stand before you today as candidate for President 
of the United States. I am not just running to make history. I am 
running because I believe that together we can change history’s 
course. It’s not enough just to look back and wonder how far we’ve 
come; I want us to look ahead with fierce urgency at how far we have 
to go. I believe its time for this generation to make its own mark, 
to write our own chapter in the American story.

     Those who came before us did not strike a blow against injustice 
only so that we would let injustice fester in our time. Thurgood 
Marshall did not argue Brown so that we could accept a country where 
too many African American men end up in prison because we’d rather 
spend more to jail a 25-year-old than to educate a 5-year-old. Dr. 
King did not take us to the mountaintop so that we would allow a 
terrible storm to ravage those who were stranded in the valley. He 
did not expect that it would take a breach in the levees to reveal a 
breach in our compassion; that it would take a hurricane to reveal 
the hungry God asked us to feed, the sick he asks us to care for, the 
least of these he asks us to treat as our own.

     I am certain that nine children did not walk through the doors 
of a school in Little Rock so that our children would have to see 
nooses hanging at a school in Louisiana. It’s a fitting reminder that 
the 50th anniversary of Little Rock fell on this week. Because when 
the doors of that school finally opened, a nation responded. The 
President sent the United States Army to stand on the side of 
justice. The Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The 
Department of Justice created a civil rights division and millions of 
Americans took to the streets in the following months and years so 
that more children could walk through more doors.

     These weren’t easy choices to make at the time. President 
Eisenhower was warned by some that sending the army down to Little 
Rock would be political suicide. Resistance to civil rights reform 
was fierce. We know that those who marched for freedom did so at 
great risk, for themselves and their families–but they did it 
because they understood that there are some times in our history, 
there are moments when what’s truly risky is not to act. What’s truly 
risky is to let the same injustice remain year after year after year. 
What’s truly risky is to walk away and pretend it never happened. 
What’s truly risky is to accept things as they are, instead of 
working for what they could be. In a media driven culture that’s more 
obsessed with who’s beating who in Washington, or how long Paris 
Hilton is going to be in jail, these moments are harder to spot. But 
every so often they do appear. Sometimes it takes a hurricane, 
sometimes it takes a travesty of justice like the one we’ve seen in 
Jena, Louisiana.
We know they’re wrong. And yet they 
go largely unnoticed until people finally find the courage to stand 
up and say they’re wrong–until someone finally says: It’s wrong that 
Scooter Libby gets no jail time for compromising our national 
security while a 21-year-old honor student is sitting in a Georgia 
prison for something that was not even a felony.

     There are some who will make Jena about the fight itself. And 
it’s true that we have to do more as parents to instill our children 
with the idea that violence is always wrong: It’s wrong when it 
happens on the streets of Chicago; it’s wrong when it happens in a 
schoolyard in Louisiana. Violence is not the answer. And all of us 
know that more violence is perpetrated between blacks than between 
blacks and whites. Our community has suffered more than anything from 
the slow, chronic tolerance of violence. Nonviolence was the soul of 
the civil rights movement. We have to do a better job of teaching our 
children that virtue.

     But we also know that to truly understand Jena you have to look 
at what happened both before and after that fight. You have to listen 
to the hateful slurs that flew through the hallways of that school. 
You have to know the full measure of the damage done by that arson; 
you have to look at those nooses hanging on that schoolyard tree, and 
you have to understand how badly our system of justice failed those 
six boys in the days after that fight. The outrageous charges, the 
unreasonable and excessive sentences, the public defender who did not 
call a single witness.

     Like Katrina did with poverty, Jena exposed glaring inequalities 
in our justice system that were around long before that schoolyard 
fight broke out. It reminds us of the fact that we have a system that 
locks away too many young first time nonviolent offenders for the 
better part of their lives; a decision that’s not made by a judge in 
a courtroom but all too often by politicians in Washington and state 
capitals across the country. It reminds us that we have certain 
sentences that are based less than on the kind of crime you commit 
than where you come from, or what you look like. It reminds us that 
we have a Justice Department whose idea of prosecuting civil rights 
violations is to roll back affirmative action programs at our 
colleges and universities; a Justice Department whose idea of 
prosecuting voter fraud is to look for voting fraud in black and 
Latino communities where voting fraud does not exist. And you know 
that these inequities are there.

     It’s not always easy to come out and say this. I commend those 
of you at Howard that have spoken out on Jena Six or traveled to the 
rally in Louisiana. I commend those of you who have spoken out on the 
Genarlow Wilson case. I know it can be lonely protesting this kind of 
injustice. I know there’s not a lot of glamour in it. Because when I 
was a state senator in Illinois we have a death penalty system that 
had sent 13 innocent people to their death–13 innocent men that we 
know. I wanted to reform the system, and I was told by almost 
everyone that it was not possible, that I wouldn’t be able to get 
police officers and civil rights activists to work together, 
Democrats and Republicans to agree that we should videotape 
confessions to make sure they weren’t coerced. Folks told me that 
there was too much political risk involved, and it would come to 
haunt me later, when I ran for higher office. But I believed that it 
was too risky not to act. And after a while people with opposing 
views came together and started listening. And we ended up reforming 
that death penalty system, and we did the same when I passed the law 
to expose racial profiling.

     So don’t let anyone tell you that change is not possible. Don’t 
let them tell you that standing out and speaking up about injustice 
is too risky. What’s too risky is keeping quiet. What’s too risky is 
looking the other way. I don’t want to be here standing and talking 
about another Jena four years from now because we didn’t have the 
courage to act today. I don’t want this to be another issue that ends 
up being ignored when the cameras are turned off and the headlines 
disappear. It’s time to seek a new dawn of justice in America.

     From the day I take office as President of the United States–
has a ring to it, doesn’t it? From the day I take office as President 
America will have a Justice Department that is truly dedicated to 
justice, the work it began in the days after Little Rock. I will rid 
the department of idealogues and political cronies, and for the first 
time in eight years the civil rights division will actually be 
staffed with civil rights lawyers who prosecute civil rights 
violations, and employment discrimination and hate crimes.

     And we’ll have a voting rights section that actually defends the 
rights of all American to vote without deception or intimidation. 
When fliers are placed in our neighborhoods telling people to vote on 
the wrong day, that won’t be an injustice–it will be a crime. As 
President of the United States I will also work every day to ensure 
that this country has a criminal justice system that inspires trust 
and confidence in every American regardless of age or race or 
background. There’s no reason that every person accused of a crime 
shouldn’t have a qualified public attorney to defend them. We’ll 
recruit more public defenders to the profession by forgiving college 
and law school loans. I will be asking some of the brilliant young 
minds here at Howard to take advantage of that offer. There’s no 
reason why we can’t pass a racial profiling law like I did in 
Illinois, or encourage states to reform the death penalty so that 
innocent people do not end up on death row.

     When I am President I will no longer accept the false choice 
between being tough on crime and vigilant in our pursuit of justice. 
Dr. King said: ‘It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.’ Black folks care 
about stopping crime. We care about being tough on violence. But we 
can have a crime policy that’s both tough and smart. If you’re 
convicted of a crime involving drugs, of course you should be 
punished. But let’s not make the punishment for crack cocaine that 
much more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine when the real 
difference is where the people are using them or who is using them. 
Republicans have said they think that’s wrong, Democrats think that’s 
wrong and yet it’s been approved by Republican and Democratic 
presidents because no one has been willing to brave the politics and 
make it right. But I will, when I am President of the United States 
of America.

     I think its time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up 
some first time nonviolent drug users for decades. Someone once said, 
and I quote: ‘While minimum sentences for first-time users may not be 
the best way to occupy jail space, and/or heal people from their 
disease.’ You know who said that? That was George W. Bush–six years 
ago. And I don’t say this very often, but I agree with George W. 
Bush. The difference is that he hasn’t done anything about it. When I 
am President of the United States, I will. We will review these 
sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the 
blind and counterproductive warehousing of nonviolent offenders. We 
will give first-time nonviolent drug offenders a chance to serve 
their sentence where appropriate, in the type of drug rehab programs 
that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad 
behavior and reducing recidivism. So let’s reform the system. Let’s 
do what’s smart. Let’s do what’s just.

     Now there’s no doubt that taking these steps will restore a 
measure of justice and equality to America. It will also restore a 
sense of confidence to the American people that the system doesn’t 
just work, it works for everyone. But there’s a broader point I’d 
like to meet here today. If I have the opportunity to lead this 
nation, I will always be a president who hears your voice and 
understand your concerns. A President whose story is like so many of 
your own. Whose life work has been the unfinished work of our long 
march towards justice. And I will stand up for you, and fight for 
you, and wake up every single day thinking about how to make your 
lives better.

     The truth is, though, one man cannot make a movement. No single 
law can erase the prejudice in the heart of a child who hangs a noose 
on a tree. Or in the callousness of a prosecutor who bypasses justice 
in the pursuit of vengeance. No one leader, no matter how shrewd, or 
experienced, or inspirational, can prevent teenagers from killing 
other teenagers in the streets of our cities, or free our 
neighborhoods from the grip of homelessness, or make real the promise 
of opportunity and equality for every citizen.

     Only a country can do those things. Only this country can do 
those things. That’s why if you give me the chance to serve this 
nation, the most important thing I will do as your President is to 
ask you to serve this country, too. The most important thing I’ll do 
is to call on you every day to take a risk, and do your part to carry 
this movement forward. Against deep odds and great cynicism I will 
ask you to believe that we can right the wrong we see in America. I 
say this particularly to the young people who are listening today. …

     I know that you believe it’s possible too. The most inspiring 
thing about the response to Jena was that it did not begin with the 
actions of any one leader. The call went out to thousands across the 
internet and on black radio and on college campuses like Howard. And, 
like the young Americans of another era, you left your homes and you 
got on buses and you traveled south. It’s what happened two years 
earlier when Americans from every walk of life took it upon 
themselves to save a city that was drowning. It’s how real change and 
true justice have always come about. It takes a movement to lift a 
nation. It will take a movement to go into our cities and say that is 
not enough just to fix our criminal justice says what we really need 
is to make sure our kids don’t end up there in the first place. …

     It’s time to finish what we started in Topeka, Kansas and Little 
Rock, Arkansas. It will take a movement of every American from every 
city and town, every race and every background to stand up and say: 
No matter what you look like or where you come from, every child in 
America should have the opportunity to receive the best education 
this country can offer. Every child. We recruit an army of new 
teachers, and we pay them better, and we give them more support. It 
will take a movement to ensure that every young person gets the 
chance that Howard has given all of you, to say that at the beginning 
of the 21st century, college education is not a luxury for those who 
can afford it–it is the birthright of every single American. So when 
we go back to your class rooms and your dorm rooms and you begin this 
new year at Howard University, I ask you to remember how far we’ve 
come, but I urge you to think about where we need to go. I urge you 
to think about the risks you will take and the role you will play in 
the movement that will get us there.

     And I finally ask you to remember the story of Moses and Joshua, 
I spoke about this when I was in Selma, the 42nd anniversary of 
Bloody Sunday and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Most of 
you know that Moses was called by God to lead his people to the 
promised land. And in the face of a pharaoh and his armies, across an 
unforgiving desert and along the walls of an angry sea, he succeeded 
in leading his people out of bondage in Egypt. He led them through 
great dangers and they got far enough so that Moses could point the 
way toward freedom on the far banks of the river Jordan. Yet it was 
not God’s plan to have Moses cross the river. Instead he would call 
on Joshua to finish the work that Moses began. He would ask Joshua to 
take his people that final distance. Everyone in this room stands on 
the shoulders of many Moseses. Many Moseses fought and battled here 
at Howard University. They are courageous men and women who marched 
and fought and bled for the rights and freedoms we enjoy today. They 
have taken us many miles over an impossible journey.

     And to the young people here: you are members of the Joshua 
Generation. It is up to you to finish the work that they began. it is 
up to you to cross the river. When Joshua discovered the challenge he 
faced he had doubts and he had worries. He told God: ‘Don’t choose 
me, I’m not strong enough, I’m not wise enough; I don’t have the 
training; I don’t have enough experience.’ God told Joshua not to 
fear; he said ‘Be strong and have courage, for I am with you wherever 
you go.’ Be strong and have courage. Be strong and have courage in 
the face of anything. Be strong and have courage and we will cross 
over into that promised land together. Thank you.”

3 thoughts on “Obama, Jena and Justice

  1. Absolutely great speach!
    My best to all of you overseas and know, we’re proud of you ! History is on march now ! yes you can ! and yes, we can with you !

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