Vernon Jordan talks of achievements of blacks
By Cliff Bellamy
DURHAM -- Since he took office a year ago, President Barack Obama has
made "a good beginning under the worst of circumstances," veteran
civil rights leader Vernon Jordan said during an address Sunday at
Watts Street Baptist Church. Obama faces a long road ahead, with
challenges in domestic and foreign policy, but Jordan said he expects
Obama to "move from campaigning and motivating to leading."
Jordan's sermon was titled "The First Year," and he delivered it in a
resonant baritone to a packed church. Before the service, ushers were
trying to squeeze visitors and parishioners into the pews, all full.
Leslie Dunbar, a member of Watts Street Baptist, invited Jordan to
speak. Dunbar hired Jordan in 1963 to be executive assistant for the
Southern Regional Council, the Atlanta civil rights organization
When he was preparing to get on the plane for the trip to Durham,
Jordan said, his wife asked him where he was going, and why. "I said,
because I got a subpoena from Leslie Dunbar," Jordan said, drawing
laughs from the congregation.
Jordan is an attorney, former adviser to President Clinton, and was
the longtime president of the National Urban League. (His column, "To
Be Equal," was carried in many newspapers nationally.) During his
sermon, he called Martin Luther King Jr.'s achievements and the
election of Barack Obama as president two historical moments in
American history that are directly connected. On election night of
2008, he was at a friend's house, but decided to head back to his
apartment. "Each of us felt that the unbelievable was about to
happen," Jordan said.
When the networks declared Obama the president-elect, Jordan said
there were tears in his eyes. "They were not just my tears, but the
tears of my parents and grandparents," Jordan said. Obama's election
was in many ways "the realization of my life's work" in civil rights, he said.
"I am still caught up in that incredulous, unbelievable moment,"
Jordan said, but the country has not been given the luxury of just
celebrating that moment. He praised the Obama administration's bold
action to stabilize the banks and the automobile industry, and for
taking steps to reform national health care.
But Jordan also addressed two developments that he said baffled him.
He decried the lack of bipartisanship, in a time when it is needed to
address energy, environmental and other issues. He took issue with
politicians on the right who try to portray Obama as a socialist.
Jordan also took issue with those on the left, many of whom supported
Obama in his campaign but have abandoned him for his decision to send
more troops to Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaida. "While I disagree with
him on this," Jordan said, "I have not deserted him."
It is "too early to give him a grade," Jordan said of Obama's
governing and leadership. But the visions Obama put forth in his
books "Dreams from My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope" will serve
him well as he moves forward. "I believe our president is well on his way."
Labor union advocate praises King's support
By Cliff Bellamy
DURHAM -- In a speech that drew two standing ovations, labor union
advocate and farm worker organizer Dolores Huerta praised Martin
Luther King Jr.'s support of workers' right to organize unions, and
called for a new movement for economic justice to carry out King's legacy.
When he was assassinated in 1968, King had gone to Memphis, Tenn. to
give his support to striking sanitation workers, despite warnings
from some that he should stay away.
"He understood the importance of people being in labor unions,"
Huerta said. King was "a martyr not just for civil rights but for the
cause of workers' rights," she said. "I think the next movement we
need to talk about is an economic justice movement," Huerta said.
Huerta was the keynote speaker for Duke University's 2010 Service of
Celebration honoring King, held Sunday in Duke Chapel. Huerta was the
co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. She helped
direct the national grape boycott of the late 1960s, which led to the
signing of a collective bargaining agreement between California
growers and grape pickers. She is now president of a foundation that
teaches poor working people how to organize.
Huerta was introduced by Ariel Dorfman, playwright, novelist and a
professor of Latin American studies at Duke. He recalled first
hearing her name in 1967 when he was teaching peasants in his native
Chile to organize. He read a newspaper article about the UFW boycott,
and was impressed with the inherent nonviolence and effectiveness of
a consumer boycott. He later came to the United States, met Huerta,
and since then has admired her efforts as an organizer, and her
efforts to make King's dream a reality.
In a wide-ranging speech, Huerta spoke of the vast disparities in
wealth in the United States, referring to the big bonuses that
executives of certain banks and other institutions -- some of which
received taxpayer money to shore up a failing financial system --
receive. This continued disparity is wrong when the minimum wage "has
not caught up with the cost of living," she said. She stressed that
stronger labor unions are necessary to help remove this disparity in wealth.
Unions can be a source of information and advocacy for legislation,
but fewer Americans belong to a union. "We have to remember that all
a labor union is, is an organization of working people." She added
later: "It is the people who work with their hands that create the
wealth of the world."
Sunday's service also included performances of music and dance. The
100 Men in Black Choir sang some hymns, which prompted applause.
Paula Harrell, chair of the N.C. Central University Music Department,
played the organ prelude, and the Duke University Jazz Ambassadors
performed arrangements of "Amazing Grace" and other traditional
hymns. The Collage Dance Company did the processional and
recessional, complete with drums and traditional attire.
Huerta encouraged the congregation to become more involved in
legislation at the state and national level. Health insurance
companies have been able to discourage a public option in the
national health care bill because those who support it have not been
heard from. The election of Barack Obama was not in itself enough to
ensure changes in health care, as well as other policy issues. "Our
president can only sign the laws that come to his desk," Huerta said.
Huerta received standing ovations when she took the podium, and when
her speech ended. Before the end of her speech, she led the
congregation in a call-and-response chant. She had the crowd yell
"Wozani," a Zulu word meaning "come together," the sound of which
echoed off the chapel walls. The crowd also chanted "Si, se puede"
("Yes, we can)."
After the speech, the congregation joined hands and sang "We Shall
Overcome," considered the anthem of the civil rights movement.