Meeting of February 28, 2007, Washington D.C. to Launch E-Race Initiative
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Let me begin by thanking the Commission, and in particular Chair Naomi Earp, for this opportunity to be with you today. I bring you greetings from Birmingham, Alabama.
The Birmingham Pledge is a grassroots effort which began in the Birmingham Community in late 1997 to eliminate racism all over the world, one person at a time. While the effort has now become a movement that has enjoyed great success locally, nationally, and even internationally, I regret to inform you that as of this morning we have not accomplished our mission - unfortunately racism still exists in the hearts and minds, and often in the actions, of a significant portion of our population - in Birmingham, throughout the nation, and around the world. The forms of racism's manifestation in this country have changed since the 1950's and '60's when African Americans took to the streets of Birmingham and other cities to demand the constitutional right to equality that our country's founders had promised. Nevertheless, it persists.
Many very good people sincerely believe that if we would just stop talking about racism so much it would just go away. I don't believe that to be the case. I don't think that benign neglect solves very many of our important problems in society. If it did, we probably wouldn't need so many lawyers and judges.
Great strides have been made since the so-called "civil rights era", brought about in significant part by laws designed to provide very basic rights - laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Not to diminish in any way the importance of progress brought about by the enforcement of such laws, I submit for your consideration the premise that, while laws are reasonably effective in modifying the actions of our citizens, they are not very effective when it comes to changing the hearts and minds of people; and I firmly believe that unless we can effect a wholesale change in the hearts and minds - that is to say the attitudes - of a significant segment of the population of the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will have absolute job security - your work will never be done, and our court systems throughout the country, federal and state, will continue to have to deal with conflicts and situations which, whether apparent or not, are rooted in issues of race. Is such a paradigm shift in attitude possible? To believe otherwise is to concede that racism will always be a part of our lives, a concession no person of good faith who yearns for a more humane world could ever make.
In November 1997, I was driving alone from Mobile, Alabama to Birmingham on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, returning home from a Leadership Alabama retreat. I had just heard a very inspirational talk by Bill Smith, Chairman of Royal Cup Coffee, on the work of A+ in Alabama in the field of education. When Bill finished, Marsha Folsom, wife of Alabama's recently-elected Lieutenant Governor, said that our next retreat would be in Birmingham in January and that the topic was diversity. She challenged our class to consider in the interim ways that we might address issues of race much as Bill Smith and A+ were addressing education issues.
As I drove, I reflected on a lifetime of encounters with racism in many forms in my native state of Alabama and beyond, and wondered how we as a society could ever free ourselves of its bondage. It occurred to me that society has many ills which most individuals can do very little to remedy. Consider cancer for example. Cancer is a terrible thing. And yet, there is very little that most people, as individuals, can do to eliminate cancer from our world.
Racism is a different story. If all people everywhere woke up one morning and firmly resolved that there would be no more racial prejudice, and if we all lived that principle each day of our lives, then racial prejudice, and the actions that flow from it, would be eradicated from the face of the earth. Now I am not so na´ve as to think that will happen tomorrow morning, or any morning for that matter, but we as a society must move down that path, individual by individual, step by step, if the journey is ever to be completed. Every person influences other people, and we must use that influence for good if we are to progress as a society.
We need to create a national and international dialogue on the elimination of racism such as the world has never before seen. Such a dialogue in order to be successful needs a focal point. A simple statement of mutual belief around which people of good faith can rally could serve as that focal point. I began to collect my thoughts on the legal pad in the seat beside me as I drove. The words I wrote that day, which focused on the inherent worth of every individual and the dignity and respect to which every person is entitled, were in a short time adopted by much of the Birmingham community as the Birmingham Pledge.
Because the words are so important to the concept, I would like to read them to you now.
I believe that every person has worth as an individual. I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.
I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others. Therefore, from this day forward I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions. I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity.
I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.
A simple concept was worked out utilizing those words. We would expose as many people as possible to the words and ask each to make the personal commitment called for by those words. That personal commitment would be communicated to the Foundation in Birmingham and made public by recording at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, much as one would record a document in a courthouse to make it public. There is a website, WWW.BIRMINGHAMPLEDGE.ORG, where one can sign electronically and where paper signatures are recorded. Those signatures are accessible at the Civil Rights Institute. The act of making the personal commitment public would hopefully bolster one's resolve to keep the commitment and at the same time provide an opportunity to influence others to do the same.
A reporter asked me sometime later how long it took me to write the Birmingham Pledge. I told him that I had never thought about it, but that since I was 52 years old at the time, I thought it took 52 years and 5 minutes. Once I began to write that day, the words flowed quickly.
In January 1998, the effort was launched publicly at the Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast in Birmingham. Approximately two thousand people read the words aloud in unison. From that humble beginning the Birmingham Pledge, boosted by the coincidental growth of the internet, quickly spread around the world. People from all walks of life in countries on every continent have joined in the effort. Six weeks after it was introduced, someone told me that a copy was pinned to a bulletin board at the Taj Mahal in India. I said, "If we can go from Birmingham to the Taj Mahal in six weeks, there is nothing we can't do." In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a Joint Resolution in support of the Birmingham Pledge, and in 2002, President Bush issued a proclamation declaring the week which encompasses September 15 (the anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham) as National Birmingham Pledge Week.
The Birmingham Pledge Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, was formed to coordinate and promote Pledge efforts. The Foundation has a small staff and utilizes volunteers to conduct a number of worthwhile programs such as annual Pledge Week activities, a highly successful Teen Conference, a Study Circles program, and the granting of Lifetime Achievement Awards. Emphasis is on reaching young people. The Foundation is supported financially by sponsorships, grants and contributions, and it endeavors to partner with other organizations to accomplish its mission.
For example, the Foundation worked with the William Winter Institute at the University of Mississippi and the Southern Truth and Reconciliation organization (STAR) in Atlanta to co-sponsor a gathering in Oxford, Mississippi of groups from throughout the Southern U.S. and beyond who are concerned with improving race relations. The conference was well attended, and resulted in the formation of a permanent coalition of the represented groups to continue the work. Following the conference former Mississippi Governor William Winter joined the Advisory Board of the Birmingham Pledge Foundation. His beautiful acceptance letter was an inspiration to the Foundation, and included the following words:
"This is an idea with incredible force behind it. Much of its strength, it seems to me, lies in the very simplicity of its message, which can be understood and subscribed to by everyone who is interested in creating a more humane world."
Each year the Birmingham Pledge Foundation presents its Lifetime Achievement Award to some deserving individual. Some past recipients are Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Morris Dees, Fred Gray, Andrew Young and Rev. Joseph Lowery. This past September we presented the award to author Harper Lee, who accepted at a Birmingham Pledge ceremony held at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Interacting with her at that event were cast members of a production of To Kill a Mockingbird performed by students at predominately white Mountain Brook High School and predominantly black Fairfield High Preparatory School working together. The production was an outstanding success, with a recent encore in Montgomery at the invitation of Alabama's State Board of Education and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The real story of the Birmingham Pledge lies not in me and the words I wrote that day driving from Mobile - the real story lies in the wonderful and often ingenious ways that people around the country and around the world have reacted to those words and found to utilize those words in their own personal or organizational effort to combat racism.
As the world knows, the Birmingham Police Department was corrupt from top to bottom during the '50's and '60's. Today things are much different. If you visit Police Headquarters in downtown Birmingham today you will see on the side of the building a huge mural depicting school children surrounded by the words of the Birmingham Pledge; and almost every member of the Birmingham Police Force has signed the Pledge. The mural resulted from a wide-ranging community effort initiated by Teresa Thorne, a former Birmingham police precinct captain, and is a powerful symbol for Birmingham and the world that things have changed for the better.
Many well-known people have signed the Birmingham Pledge over the years. Bobby Allison, the legendary NASCAR driver, signed the Pledge a few years ago. Upon signing the Birmingham Pledge, Mr. Allison put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Jim, you know, our souls are all the same color." What a profound and beautiful thought! Just this week actor Billy Dee Williams signed the Birmingham Pledge while in Birmingham promoting his most recent movie "Constellation," which was set and filmed in Huntsville, Alabama and breaks racial stereotypes of our state.
Racism is of course not just a black/white issue. With the changing demographics of our country, particularly in certain geographic areas (Birmingham included), Hispanics and others experience its ugly effects on a daily basis. I think few would deny that race and color play a significant role in the current national debate on immigration policies. We must have highly effective tools for appropriate dialogue on these difficult issues, and our supporters believe that the Birmingham Pledge, with its motto "Sign it, Live it," can be one of those tools.
I applaud the Commission for the vital role it plays in the struggle against discrimination on the basis of race or color in the work force. The world is truly a better place because of your efforts. I challenge you, as you seek to eliminate illegal discrimination, to seek out appropriate ways to have a positive influence on hearts and minds as well. If there is a way for the Birmingham Pledge to play a role in those efforts, you will have the full cooperation and support of the Birmingham Pledge Foundation.
This page was last modified on April 9, 2007.
Return to Home Page