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NAACP banquet looked like founders intended

By Mary Stamp

Celebrating that the racial diversity of people at Spokane’s recent 2009 Freedom Fund Banquet reflected the vision of the multi-racial founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Hon. John Charles Thomas said in his speech that he felt he was looking at “the ideal of the NAACP:  black and white together.”

NAACP Banquet
John Charles Thomas at NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet with two local students.

Thomas, who was the first African American and the youngest person to serve on Virginia’s Supreme Court, said that “in 1909, the founders understood it would take efforts of everyone, black and white, for Americans to live the idea of equality and justice for all.”

Realizing how easy it is “for those who live in 21st century America to forget how hard it was to create the America we live in today,” he asked the audience to travel with him on a journey through history.  He then recounted the legacy of slavery, hate, lynching, killings, injustices and indignities that gave rise to the organization 100 years ago.

He told of the first boat load of Africans who arrived in chains in Virginia in 1619 and how nearly 12 million Africans died during the “middle passage,” crossing the ocean as part of the slave trade.  That trade broke “up family ties, severed cultural connections, and mutilated the bodies and spirits of slaves,” he said. 

In the midst of this suffering arose the slaves’ desire to be free,” he said.  “In their quest to be free, they understood the need for education.  So they would go out and sit under burlap to learn to read by the dim light of a camp fire, almost choking on the smoke.”

Thomas described many legal impediments to freedom that stood in the way of American black people:  Rulings like the Dred Scott decision in 1857 held that a black man had no rights a white man was bound to respect.  From 1880 to 1920, on average, two black people were lynched each day in America—more than 4,000 murders in 40 years. 

Thomas told of the 1896 decisions in Plessy v. Ferguson when the Supreme Court declared segregation the law of the land.

He explained that “the horrors of lynchings, the injustices of segregation, the weight of the court rulings came together to cause thoughtful Americans, black and white, to come together in the quest for freedom for all Americans.”

Then he told of recent scientific studies of the human genome, which reveal that the least of differences among human beings is skin color:  It takes more genetic coding to form the shape of the earlobe or a person’s hairline than for the color of skin. 

“In human history, it appears that the smallest difference between us has been the source of the most violence, hatred, injustice and unfairness,” he said.

In 1909, the NAACP started its efforts to change America under the law, Thomas said.  He described the 1954 decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka Kans., which ended segregation in public schools.  

However, violence continued with bombings of young girls in a church in Birmingham, Ala., with the assassination of NAACP field worker Medgar Evers and with attacks on Freedom riders in the South.  Then came changes with the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act and more.

Born in 1950 in a segregated Virginia, Thomas said that in his childhood every part of the black community was engaged in the struggle for freedom and justice—not just teachers and preachers, but also entertainers, sports legends and even children. 

Along with songs like “We Shall Overcome” or “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he said the movement was also inspired by soul singers singing, “Change gon’ come,” and jazz singers singing “Move over sun and give me some sky, I got me some wings and I’m eager to fly.” 

While in the 1960s, he said, “you could feel the whole community pulling together in the fight for justice and equality,” today he senses a cultural divide.  He laments this difference. 

After all the bloodshed, litigation and marches, we have come to a place where the legal system that stood in the way of freedom has been knocked down,” he said.  “Today young people—black, white, red, yellow or brown—have the freedom in large measure to be what they want to be.

“In this day of freedom, however, inner city schools that are largely black have dropout rates near 50 percent; homicides are the leading cause of death for black men 18 to 25, and too many black young men in prison or subject to the criminal justice system.

Now, Thomas said, the struggle has shifted.

“No longer do black people fight an external struggle against outside forces.  Today they face an internal struggle with the choices they make,” he said.   “We cannot keep on blaming others.  We must look to ourselves and ask how, after all we have been through and all the freedoms we have won, we are not putting them to full use.”

In his life, his grandmother taught him that “the small things we do in life lead to bigger things.”   She would say, “Little drops of water, little grains of sand make the mighty ocean and the pleasant land.”  

Thomas urges that children be taught about consequences of their decisions and that what happens now can affect their whole lives.  He was reared by his community because his father was in prison, drunk or away, and his mother, a civil rights worker was out of work and had to leave the area.  Aunts, uncles, neighbors, teachers, preachers and others urged him to stay in school, do his best and work to end injustice. 

“If I did something wrong, they knew before I came home,” he said. “I was  expected to be responsible.  Teachers taught us to be better than the best. No one would give us a break.”  

Sent to a white school in 1965 as part of integration, he finished with honors and went on to the University of Virginia where, in 1972, he was one of only three blacks in his graduating class.

“I was taught to stand up and be counted, speak clearly and write cogently,” he said.

When he finished law school, every law firm in his state rejected him despite his honors and grades.  He told a lawyer friend in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington.  That lawyer offered to sue the law firms on his behalf.

“When word got out about that, I had an offer from the state’s largest firm, where I work today.”

Since going on the state Supreme Court at 32—other justices were more than 21 years older —he has worked to help insure justice for all.

Thomas told the Spokane gathering that he believes “change is possible” and his message to them is a message of hope. 

“I come with a message to embolden you, to give you hope and remind you we are all in this together. As King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.’

“Young people, you are in the struggle, too.  Go out and be involved,” he said, proceeding to quote Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too,” he recited through to the poem’s conclusion:  That’s what it takes for a young person to become a mature person. 

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Copyright © December 2009 - The Fig Tree