Our Abiding Hope
AS I REVIEW my seven-plus decades of engagement in the struggle for justice, equality, and equal opportunity for African American people, I realize the struggle requires many different approaches. But what is consistent in this work is a determination to honor the historical struggle of our ancestors, and the belief in us as a people. We need to observe the world we live in, remember what has gone before us, assess results, and have understanding and empathy for all strategies. We should appreciate the efforts of our ancestors, whose love and care gave our children the confidence to be the best they can be. We need to understand the depth of the struggle, the history of the struggle, and the pain of the struggle. We need patience with those who need instant gratification, who have been deeply touched and wounded by supremacy and racism, who have only felt the pain of what has not worked. We must love and understand our brothers and sisters who have not been blessed with the love, security, and examples of belief in what’s possible.
We need the energy to keep trying. Civil rights laws that began to take legal shape in the 1950s and 1960s were passed—but the teaching of white supremacy is stronger than laws. And so I learned from those around me that you don’t stop; you keep on keeping on.
My generation participated in the process of appreciating and learning that “Black Is Beautiful,” knowing that we were “Young, Gifted, and Black,” listening and believing in words like “Hold On, Hope Is Coming.” My generation understands why our children are impatient and continue to demonstrate against injustice. They will become ancestors themselves one day, and they too must believe that there is “hope in the struggle.”
I never thought I would live long enough to see a Black president. I was seventy-eight years old when Barack Obama was elected to his first term as President of the United States in 2008.
As I reflect on my DFL and overall political involvement over the years, I realize how long and deep that history has remained. I have been involved in politics since I was fourteen years old, when I went door to door with my father in Houston to collect signatures to do away with the oppressive Poll Tax, which was implemented throughout the South to prevent Blacks from voting. I was twenty-one and living in Massachusetts with my husband in 1952 when I cast my first vote. President Harry Truman was elected that year. I have been involved in Minnesota politics since 1957 and have served in many capacities. I’ve been a precinct chair, a city and state delegate, a co-chair of the African American Caucus and the DFL party, along with many other roles. There is a brick that bears my name in front of the DFL headquarters in St. Paul, along with bricks with the names of others who have served the party over long periods of time. I remember celebrating the dedication of my brick with Jane Freeman, wife of former Governor Orville Freeman and mother of our current Hennepin County Attorney, Michael Freeman. My name had been suggested, among others, by the Black state legislators who were young activists when I became engaged in politics in Minnesota.
In 2006, I was on vacation with my family in St. Martin in the Caribbean when my son-in-law, Eugene Jones Duffy, received a call from Illinois Senator Barack Obama. The senator said he was being urged to run for President of the United States and asked for Gene’s financial support if he decided to accept the challenge. At that time, I didn’t believe America was ready to elect a Black person to represent the nation on the world stage. I advised Gene that the election would never happen and financial support would not help Senator Obama’s campaign, but he ignored my advice and agreed to support the senator. He worked very hard, raised lots of money, sponsored, and cosponsored many events in Atlanta, where he and my daughter Norrene reside, and across the nation.
Even though I held a deep feeling that this country was not ready for Barack Obama, I decided to work hard for him as well. Initially, I made phone calls, registered voters, spoke on his behalf whenever and wherever I could, and contributed financially as often as my resources would allow. As I became more involved in the campaign, I wanted to become a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. That a Black man, a descendant of African ancestors, a people despised by the laws, teachings, and behaviors of a nation, would be selected to represent America in my lifetime seemed unbelievable. And the thought that I could be engaged in the process of selecting him as a nominee was beyond a dream come true.
The path to the convention as a delegate required advice and guidance. There is an established and respected process for becoming a delegate to the national convention, a process that includes candidates from the congressional and state districts, representatives from the elected congressional members, and Democratic National Committee members. During my early affiliation, the Party added gender and race to the selection of delegates. By this time, gender was the main criterion added to the selection process, and Affirmative Action language used for the process was changed from racial composition of the state to include both racial and gender balance so that there would be an equal number of male and female delegates as well as delegates from different racial groups.
I was blessed to know RoseAnn Zimbro, the outreach director for the Minnesota DFL. She was an excellent trainer, with serious attention to detail regarding the processes required to earn the honor of being elected as a national delegate. RoseAnn maintained that half of the battle to becoming a delegate is knowing and following the rules for delegate selection. I had been a delegate in our city and state conventions, but this was different—I was eager to attend the convention of a lifetime.
The Democratic National Convention has a system where unpledged delegates known as superdelegates are seated automatically and can choose for themselves who they wish to support for a presidential nomination. Minnesota has two delegates, one male and one female. My name was placed in nomination at the state convention and I was voted to be one of the two superdelegates from Minnesota. I was going to the August 27 National Convention in Denver.
It was a great feeling being back in Denver for a brief while, even though we were busy, and I was able to see a lot of my old political friends. It was also pleasing to see that the delegation of people who attended the convention conducted a food drive—we must have packaged hundreds of food boxes to share with the community of Denver.
A motion to nominate Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee by acclamation was presented by Hillary Clinton and was unanimously accepted. Barack Hussein Obama was now the official candidate for President of the United States of America. This gracious action improved my attitude about her, and I was happy to have an opportunity to speak with her and former President Clinton while I was there. I also had a chance to meet future Senator Kamala Harris from California. Her niece and my granddaughter Josie Helen are very good friends, and they were both at the convention as well. Another wonderful thing that occurred was that Byron Pitts, who was at CBS at the time, interviewed me to get my perspective on the support of Obama and what my hopes were and what I thought his election would mean for our efforts in the struggle. I was very impressed with his interview.
Amazingly, the day our first African American presidential nominee gave his acceptance speech, August 28, 2008, was the forty-fifth anniversary of the day the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington—a speech I also witnessed. All of the Black delegates in the room were so proud, and none of us oldsters could believe we were seeing this happen after all those years of not believing it was even a possibility. It was a happy, cheerful moment, and yet there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
President Barack Obama was sworn into office as the forty-fourth president on January 20, 2009. It was a historic moment in American history, a dream deferred for so long. I was blessed to see and to visit with President Obama on several occasions, and to visit with the First Lady. And to think those blessings began with a phone call a young senator from Illinois made to my son-in-law in 2006.
Early in President Obama’s first term, Representative Keith Ellison invited me and his wife, Kim, and their daughter to attend First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama’s first public event in Washington, D.C., a luncheon she sponsored to say thank you to women campaigners and others. Rather than gifting us with things that wouldn’t last such as flowers, Mrs. Obama gave each of her guests a pair of sandals—something that would be comfortable, lasting, and sustainable for us. I met Michelle Obama on two other occasions during the campaigns in 2008 and again in 2011.
Representative Ellison also invited me to the president’s first State of the Union speech. I was sitting in the balcony of the House of Representatives chamber listening proudly and intently. I will never forget the moment when the president began to speak about health care. Suddenly, Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled, “You lie.” I saw the president pause for a moment and look in Representative Wilson’s direction. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. The President of the United States of America was being publicly disrespected by an elected U.S. Representative.
The shock of that experience should have prepared us for what was to become a pattern of behavior. Members of the Republican Congress announced immediately after his election that they would not support his office or his legislation and would oppose his leadership in every way possible. They did not make these statements behind closed doors: they publicly made their position clear and followed up at every possible opportunity. Yet in spite of their declarations, under President Obama America was in the most envied position in the world, and he was elected to a second term.
The election of Donald John Trump defied everything experts predicted and was a blow to the Black community. My family, friends, and colleagues were devastated. Unfortunately, it was not a shocking surprise to me. I was disappointed but I really was not surprised. Over time, my observation has been that the degree of hatred that those who enslaved our ancestors perpetrated toward Black people is deeply etched into the psyche of America. The justification that was given for enslaving our ancestors and the treatment and the teaching of inferiority of Black people have created a lasting problem. Donald Trump was able to preach supremacy of white people and to invoke insecurity by tapping into the fears taught about Black people during slavery. He was able to offer those facing economic hardship a target for their anger and frustration. The multitudes who attended his public rallies and other gatherings suggested to me that he was delivering a message that was being heard and approved by a large number of Americans. His rhetoric, style, and lies were drawing very large crowds. It was becoming pretty clear that there were more people approving of his style and supporting his campaign strategy than we realized.
Trump’s belief in white supremacy shouldn’t have been a surprise to any of us. He has a long and documented history of showing bias in both his business and political life dating as far back as the 1960s. In fact, much of what he said during his campaign was reminiscent of hateful things I heard throughout the civil rights struggle. And I remembered that he was the leader of the “birther” movement, a movement that insisted that Barack Hussein Obama was born in Kenya and that therefore he was not qualified to be the President of the United States of America.
What was shocking and troubling to me was that no matter what he said or did, Trump was able to garner widespread support, even from those whom he publicly disdained. He was cruel and mean spirited, and a bully to other candidates. He was vulgar in his language and description of relations with and expressions toward women and consistently modeled sexist beliefs, and yet white women voted for him in large numbers. He openly mocked people with disabilities and disrespected nonwhite families whose children had died and earned medals for their service to our country. He, without shame, showed himself to be self-absorbed—and he lied over and over again. Even individuals who were respected leaders with authority and power in their religious faith communities were willing to overlook his lack of spiritual knowledge and his lack of respect for those who had spiritual beliefs.
Mr. Trump demonstrated repeatedly that he did not know American history or the language of the Constitution of the United States of America, and that he had little knowledge of world history or customs. He seemed not to care, nor was he interested in learning. And I began to believe that his followers did not care either. In fact, it seemed that the less he knew, the larger his following. As I sat watching on November 4, 2016, the vote count for Donald Trump became an issue. And as I answered phone calls from family and friends who were also watching his results climb, many became deeply afraid and prayed that there would be a different result.
My family and friends were in disbelief when it was announced that Donald J. Trump had been elected President of the United States of America.
My eldest granddaughter, Lauren Noelle Thomas Araujo, and I talked for more than an hour the morning the election results were confirmed. Lauren tearfully expressed her fears about the future her two little girls might have to face. She was afraid that her children may have to fight during their lifetime what their great-grandmother had fought during her lifetime. She asked, “When will we be free?”
I understood her fears. I was the third generation out of slavery and was still fighting for justice. I tried to give her hope and encouragement. I told her that hope is what gives us a sense of movement and energy. Hope moves us to remember the struggle of our ancestors. Hope reminds us to “keep on keeping on,” as my father used to say. Hope forces us to do the next thing in our struggle, to try another approach in our collective work. Our ancestors showed us how to love each other, take care of our children, keep our spiritual faith, and know that “this too shall pass.” I said that by the time my great-grandchildren, Lauren Noelle’s daughters, Lucy Josephine and Ella May, and granddaughter Josie Helen’s son, Niko, are assuming their place in the world, they will be ready for whatever is there for them to continue. We will outlast Trump. I must admit, though, for a moment I had to call on the ancestors to remind me who I am and whose shoes I stepped into many years ago.
I was with my daughter Norrene and her family in Atlanta when Trump took his oath of office. My children Josie Irene, Norrene Elaine, and my son-in-law Eugene, who was so instrumental in getting Obama elected, were shocked that America would elect a person such as Trump had demonstrated himself to be. I believe they thought that we as a nation were further along than I thought we were. And I believe that African Americans were eager to hold on to the hope, direction, honesty, and spirituality that Obama evoked. But our main pride was in how he had pulled America out of the depths of a financial crisis and in the process provided hope to the country and to the people who were suffering from the recession when he took office in 2008. This nation was on the edge of an economic disaster and Obama returned America to financial health. It was shocking to me to realize that supremacy and the Trump philosophy, as spoken and demonstrated, could supersede all that President Obama had accomplished without the support of members of Congress—a Congress that had promised on the night of his first State of the Union address to not support him or his goals for America. The fact that America was willing to sacrifice all of that was a real surprise. My children were as surprised and disappointed as I was. I remember the night we got the results my daughter Josie said, “Mother, we as a people have withstood so much throughout our history. We will survive this as well.”
Since his election, Donald Trump has defined his presidency in his own way. He has borrowed strategies from past presidents, for example, Nixon and Reagan, that fit his definition of his presidency. And in so doing, he has created a world of confusion. He is clearly and proudly not organizing his administration on a model of tradition and history. His method of governing does not fit anything scholars of politics or writers of political history have ever seen or experienced. Instead, he gives respect and value to his determination to change the system and to his ignorance of history, tradition, and protocol. His intent to disrupt the system has influenced his selection of members of his cabinet, and he appoints those who do not trust the government he is now managing. He has appointed individuals who seem to lack the skills, knowledge, or commitment to America. Trump’s philosophy seems to be to divide and conquer. He seems to enjoy creating confusion. President Obama did not have enough support from Congress to get his legislation passed into laws and had to use executive orders to make a difference during his two terms in office. Trump makes no secret that his mission to “make American great again” means to undo everything Obama did. Unfortunately, he has the authority to do so.
I agree with my daughter Josie. Indeed, we have withstood and survived, as a people, the history of the denial of much of our history—and will survive this as well. In the meantime, my children and grandchildren are addressing their fears and responses in different ways: from managing their co-workers with justice and fairness, to writing legal blogs on topics of justice and fairness, to studying and understanding Black culture through the arts. By focusing on who we are and what we have contributed and passing their knowledge on, they are carrying on our family tradition of being ambassadors of our culture and history.
As I review my understanding of the election of Mr. Trump and reflect on the fears of my grandchildren, I appreciate more and more clearly the impulse of their generation to ask why we still struggle for justice and equality. My continued struggle comes from my belief in the history and experience of African American people and our determination to survive for our children. I believe the protection and love of community and what we want for our children are factors in how we have gotten beyond any hopeless moment in our history. Somehow, we have always been able to pass that strength on to the next generation. We have experienced every type of abuse, brutal government leadership, and denial of human and civil rights. We have seen and survived other Trumps. We have modeled creativity, intelligence, determination, and skill. I do not believe the method Trump is modeling as American democracy will last. We are survivors. We will be here when the Mr. Trumps of the world are exposed and out of power. We will save our children and will continue in the tradition of our ancestors. We will survive, we will live, and we will have hope.