Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

The Democratic congresswoman from Texas offers her take on President Obama’s standing with African Americans and his recent speech at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual awards dinner.

Sheila Jackson Lee has represented Houston, TX in the U.S. Congress since '95 and serves on the Judiciary Committee and as the Ranking Member of the Homeland Security Transportation Security Subcommittee. An attorney by profession, Lee previously served two terms as one of the first African American female at-large members of Houston's city council and was an associate municipal court judge. Jackson Lee has championed immigrant rights and was an early supporter of a single-payer healthcare system. She's a previous vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.


Tavis: Tonight, though we begin with a conversation about President Obama standing with African Americans, and specifically this controversial speech he gave over the weekend to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Here is just a small portion of the speech that’s got a whole lot of folk confused.

[Begin video clip]

“President Barack Obama:” Take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes. Take it off. Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do.

[End video clip]

Tavis: For more on this tonight, pleased to be joined by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a long-time member of the CBC and Democrat from Houston, Texas. She joins us, as you can see, from Washington. Congresswoman, good to have you back on this program. Thanks for your time.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee: Tavis, it’s a pleasure to be with you, and let me just offer my respect and sympathy for our African sister who lost her life and to thank her for her service and her commitment.

Tavis: She was indeed a great woman, and we’re going to, again, rebroadcast that conversation Thursday. I look forward to seeing it again myself.

Jackson Lee: Great.

Tavis: I enjoyed and loved Wangari Maathai.

Jackson Lee: Absolutely.

Tavis: You were in the audience Saturday night. I really want to, in the 12 minutes I have, deconstruct this speech, at least that part of it. You were in the audience Saturday night. What did you make of specifically that speech and that line in the speech?

Jackson Lee: (Laughs) Well, can I at least say that the Congressional Black Caucus celebrated its 40th year this year, Tavis, and so we have never stepped away from our commitment to being the conscience of the Congress and frankly, the conscience of this nation.

We’re a bunch of tough birds and we know that the nation is better because of us. We had about 5,000 people in the room and there was a degree of excitement because the president was standing firm and standing his ground. We heard the refrain, “Pass the Jobs Act.” We have been out on the road for the last month, seeing the pain of double-digit unemployment amongst African Americans and of course we saw their pain.

We’re the pain-takers, if you will. We’re the comforters of those who are in pain. We feel no way shamed by acknowledging pain. When the president came tonight or last night, two nights ago, to really speak to America, part of his speech was to say that he has listened to America, part of it was to say that, I believe, that he listened to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Of course as the crescendo raised, as we were about to honor Dr. Lowery, and I know he was aware that he was in the house, he began to I think try to approach the metaphor of the civil rights movement. And of course when you reach crescendo and you take on words, there were words, of course, such as taking off bedroom slippers and marching, that I will say to you in the auditorium that night the audience was on their feet.

They were caught up in the idea that here is a captain that is going to right the ship, that he is not going to allow us to sink, and the words didn’t have the impact of dissection or analysis. It was we’re going to march, we’re going to fight, we’re going to do with the Congressional Black Caucus has done, which it has pressed us to do, and we’re going to join all of those in the movement again.

That’s where I think the general belief was of that night. One can look at it in many different ways.

Tavis: Let me jump in now, because I do look at it in different ways, honestly and respectfully. Let me just start by saying there were people cheering and jumping up and down when they crucified Jesus, so the fact that people are jumping up and down, cheering, don’t mean that what’s going down is right. They cheered when they crucified our savior, number one

Number two, would the – I’m going to ask you direct – would the president ever say to an audience of our Jewish brothers and sisters concerned about the plight, the crisis in the Middle East, “Stop complaining, stop groveling, stop crying?”

Would this president ever say to Wall Street, publicly, “Stop grumbling, stop complaining, stop crying?” Would he ever say to our Hispanic brothers and sisters on immigration and their concerns, “Stop grumbling, stop crying, stop complaining?” Did he say to gays and lesbians, “Stop grumbling, stop complaining, stop crying?”

How does he get away with saying this to Black folk when he would never form his lips to ever say that to any other constituency, Congresswoman?

Jackson Lee: Well, I will say this. First of all, you’re absolutely right. There were those who cheered when Jesus was crucified, and we have found that despicable from the beginning of history to this time. I think familiarity is the answer to your question.

The president came and put on the armor of brother and sister. I make no excuse for some of those comments as you look back and you wonder whether they were said in love, whether they were said to your brother who’s sitting next to you who’s been having hard times and you’re trying to pump your brother up or your sister up and you’re saying, “Come on, now, you can do better than this. We’re not complaining.”

My view of it as a legislator and an articulation of pain and complaint, I will still continue to articulate complaint, pain and despair. But at the same time, if the captain was trying to say, “Come on now,” I really view that speech to the audience and the national audience who would hear it –

Tavis: Okay, so –

Jackson Lee: – come on now, we can do better than this, we’re going to make it. But the point is is there staying power in that message. Are we going to continue at that pace? Are we going to tell the Republicans to stop being obstructionist? Are we going to tell the Tea Party people to stop being Tea Party people instead of patriots and Americans?

I really think the one verb that might have been, the one phrase that might have been left out is that we’re all Americans. Thank you, Congressional Black Caucus, for telling America that we’re Americans and we must feel each other’s pain. But I think the captain was trying to say, “I’m in charge, I want you with me. We’re going to battle this; we’re going to make sure the change is real.”

Tavis: But here’s the other question, though, Congresswoman – who was he talking to? I’m asking this because, excuse my English, ain’t nobody in Black America been complaining. The problem is that too many Black folk, from the bourgeois elites down to everyday people, have been too deferential to this president.

They’ve been too silent on the pain that Black folk are suffering. We’ve got to ask ourselves what is our pain threshold, what is the presidency worth, what’s history going to say about us and our deafening silence in this moment?

So when he says, “Stop complaining and stop grumbling and stop crying,” who’s actually been doing that? To my mind, ain’t nobody been saying nothing about our condition. (Laughter) So what’s he talking about?

Jackson Lee: And you know the English language and the emotion of crescendo language. Now, I know that this language was actually in the speech, but I saw the degree of emotion that the president generated, and again, Tavis, I think it was all about being the captain and being in charge.

I think your analysis is right about the emotion and love, but I heard something just this past weekend which was I think interesting enough – we are in a unique atmosphere and historical time frame that none of us have ever been. Never had a Black president, an African American, never had the cultural differences that we see. So we’re all walking on thin ice, on no ice at all.

What I would say to you on this is I feel no ways tired and took that no way as directed to me. Will I be out complaining tomorrow on behalf of my people? Yes. Will the Congressional Black Caucus be out complaining, if that is how it’s defined, challenging, charging up folk? Yes, we will.

Will somebody in that audience or someone who has heard that from the president say something kind about the Congressional Black Caucus? I expect them to do so, because I expect them to say yeah, look what they were doing. Look how galvanized the focus that we need going forward.

Tavis: But Congresswoman, respectfully, here’s the flip side, though. If you’ve been online as I have been and you’ve seen all of these right-wing bloggers and websites and conservative websites. They are taking such delight in writing headlines, “Obama Tells Blacks to Shut Up and Get In Line,” “Obama Tells Blacks Stop Complaining,” “Obama Tells Blacks Stop Whining.”

They are taking such delight in writing those headlines. So here’s the question – are these really – I know what you mean, but are these really complaints or are these legitimate grievances? When the president situates these concerns that I view as legitimate grievances as complaining and grumbling and crying, and our opponents in the media and across the aisle, as you might say, take that kind of language as a complaint, as a grumble, as a cry, and not as a legitimate grievance. How do you advance the debate on those terms?

Jackson Lee: Tavis, you have a wonderful analysis on this, and let me first say this – to all the bloggers, shut up and stop playing racial politics. It’s the old-line politics of pitting us against each other. That’s one thing, and I understand. I’ve seen some of those headlines as well, and I can’t wait to get to the floor of the House to challenge them on their pettiness and their opportunity that they have thought that they have been given for us to knock heads against each other.

No, they are not complaints. You’re absolutely right. I took language that was utilized, but they’re not complaints. In fact, I don’t even call them grievances. I call them rightness. I call them the need to right wrongs over a historical period, the suffering of double-digit unemployment.

Let me tell you what my new mission is. My new mission is, and I’ve said this to the White House, I want the Buy America to be real. I want the Buy America to be by small businesses, African American businesses, Latino and Asian, but in particular our African American businesses who heretofore couldn’t even find the front door of government contracts.

The second is my own district in Houston is being blessed potentially to receive infrastructure dollars if we pass the jobs bill. I want the infrastructure dollars to realize that if they go to contractors who may not look like me, who may be large, that they are at the largesse of the federal government, and their workforce better be reflective of those who are suffering double-digit unemployment.

I do not consider that ICE, I don’t consider it discrimination; I don’t consider it affirmative action. I consider it what is right, and I’m going to ask the White House and the administration to play into and realize that federal dollars should not be played with.

I will not accept the interpretation of complaints. I realize what was going on on that night. I don’t take offense only because I will continue the agenda of helping people, along with the Congressional Black Caucus. We never stray away from our mission.

I am hoping, however, that America saw a leader that I know President Obama is. I know his heart. I believe I know his heart, that he would like to be the person who corrects the wrongs, the change-maker, but we are still in need.

I want to give him a chance. I want to give him a chance for reelection. But we are still in need. We will continue to press the envelope. Nothing will be changed with the Congressional Black Caucus’s advocacy for the pain that people feel. We hope that this is saying to America and the Tea Party and the Republicans that he is not going to bend again out of his desire to work with them.

I don’t critique the desire to work with them. That’s what presidents do. But we live in a new climate where there is not a partner in conciliation and reconciliation.

Tavis: Got you.

Jackson Lee: Now is the time that you’ve got to battle for the people who cannot speak for themselves. I hope on Saturday night we gave him an opportunity to announce, pronounce and carry that forward.

Tavis: I’m glad to have you on. I thank you for sharing your insights. All I’m saying is that words have meaning, and the president of the United States ought to consider more wisely the words that he uses when talking to Black folk as compared to others, but I digress. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Houston, good to have you on the program.

Jackson Lee: Not at all, thank you, Tavis. We all need to be listening and encouraging and making things better.

Tavis: Thank you.

Jackson Lee: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thank you for your time.

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  • William Reed

    Please do not spend any energy making the mistake of being a part of a discussion that leaves any impression that the President was trying to insult us. What he was saying, CLEARY, was INSTEAD of using the energy on talking about what you want, take action. INSTEAD of sitting in house shoes, put on your WALKING shoes and MARCH. It was a call to action!! This man never once said “Yes (I) Can.” He said “Yes WE Can”. “WE.” That means us. We are on the verge of being silent while the first African American President in history is pushed out by those who did not, have not, and will not ever accept a person of color in that position.

    Just know, that when they push him out, they are pushing you out. they are telling you “And don’t come back here again BOY!/GAL!” That is meant for you and your kids and their kids. I will say it like he wanted to say it. “STAND THE HELL UP!” Stop worrying about your feelings and focus.

  • Michelle Boyd

    Why does it seem like we are so divided as a people. I know that everyone does not have to agree with Obama,but it seems that we are discouraging a great number of young voters.from even wanting to partake in the process. I don’t think President Obama is perfect, not by a long shoot. But whats the option? Perry or one of the other Little Rascals. I don’t think so! So is it some way we can come together as a people/ or is it same divide and conquer we always seems to do to each other. Are the Dem. distancing them selves from Obama? Now it not the time. Also we as a people have to stop thinking that Govt. is going to solve all our problems. Like Obama is the “Great Black Hope.” We have to start becoming more involved the the process. I am just saying.

  • Shirley LaLande

    I believe President Obama is trying to tell us that even though you may disapprove with him at times, we as a people need to come together and support one another. I used to love to watch the news and get caught up with the things that are happening. Since President Obama has been in office, there is been one fight after another. Kept in mind that this congress agenda is to make his presidency a one term presidency. I am 65 years old and have never heard this from the congress. Also not stating that this is right, but the unemployment rates of blacks have always been higher then average unemployment. We need to take off those slippers and stop complaining and help get solutions that can help blacks over come unemployment. As a race, we don’t support or help each other. All other races, will get in and help out where necessary. Now is not the time for us to be turned out. Just listen to the noise that’s out there. The people in congress would rather have this country fail, then to have another year with President Obama. We need to start getting involved with the process. Not letting anything hinder you from going to the booth and show you support. Look what happen to Fla this week. People are not please with the candicates. So lets get involved.

  • AmericanIntegrity

    William have you ever listened to the other side speak on topics of any nature? Or do you just listen to your political pundits feed you what they want you to hear. Your comment is racist and you profile all people whom dont have the same opinon as you do. Do some research on Herman Cain.

    Jackson Lee is appauling in her comments. A national depression and all she is worried about is the african American people. There are white, asian, euopean and black people in her caucus.

    Michelle to answer your question, Yes the american people are divided. Rightfully so if you ask me and any conservative i know. Liberalism is a huge failure, been a 70 year experiment and everything they have touched has turned upside down. Obama has been a fialure in policy. Spending your way out of a recession hasent worked and never will. He has put that to bed once and for all. You have has the Congress/senate for 6 years now and Nov 2010 chaged that. Now 2012 will prove that his policies are a failure.

  • AmericanIntegrity

    Another thing is this is PBS, this seems a bit much for a public funded tv station, doesnt it? I dont want my money funding this type of one sided political brainwashing.

  • cassandra

    Bill Clinton told democrats to stop whining when Kerry lost in 2004. There’s a Washington Post article but I’m sorry I can’t post the link. Even Biden has said the same thing last year, about democrats complaining. This is a petty non-issue. I wish Tavis would stop repeating Waters’ talking points. Disappointed that people can’t see the forest for the trees.

  • Avril White

    No excuses for the president from me – Here is what it is time to do: Think outside of the box. Your head is going to implode waiting for others to do for you. Let’s start from our communites – meet your neighbor, see how you can help each other uplift your mutual community. Make partnerships, support businesses that keep your collective dollars in your commuities. The People need a base, a foundation that establishes their collective power. Partnering with people of like minds and circumstance creates this power base. This is why the media will downplay the current March on Wall Street. It vividly displays a power base that shows an absolutely compelling message. THEN and ONLY THEN will power structures respect you -when they hear your collective voices. Power only respects power. Let’s cultivate our power, then President Obama will speak to you – not like a stepbrother/sister – but with RESPECT. God Bless!

  • Abdur rahman Hugo Tobbo

    I do not think that President Obama looked down on the CBC or to black people during that speech, he might have used a number of words who were not appropriate maybe because he was caught in the moment or he was metaphorically making a point regarding the position folks are in, there is no way the President can say something wrong against blacks, not in this period where his having hard time with the opposition, this president need black folks for re-election. For those who are deconstruction or metaphrasing this speech, impartiality and objectivity is the key to seriously contextualised those words. was the President condescending, not at all.

  • Kristie Neslen

    Tavis, I agree with you regarding President Obama’s remarks.

    I am white and I voted for Mr. Obama, but I found the speech offensive. I was appalled at his condescending tone (not to mention downright weirdness–bedroom slippers, huh?).

    It reminded me of the speech he made to African American youth early in his presidency, telling them to “pull up their pants.” It may have been appropriate for Mr. Obama to use that tone to attempt to dissuade young African-Americans from emulating the prison garb they are statistically likely to be forced to wear someday, but it was clearly inappropriate for him to use that tone when addressing adults and peers.

    I realize that as the first African-American president Mr. Obama is walking a tightrope. I am aware that some people make the assumption that he cannot represent us all fairly and that he will constantly take the side of African-Americans. Unfortunately, to counter this, he seems to bend over backwards to appear “centrist.” I fear this speech was more of the same—an attempt to demonstrate to “white America” that he too can treat African-Americans like naughty children, admonishing them to “quit whining” over issues about which they (and a huge number of Americans of all races) have very real grievances.

    I would like Mr. Obama to realize that 1) there is no monolithic “white America” with views that are diametrically opposed to those of the (equally mythological) “black America,” and 2) it is a fine old American tradition for politicians to give preferential treatment to “their people”; the GOP—Greedy Obfuscating Plutocrats—have been doing it for years!

    The promise of Mr. Obama’s presidency is that, as a biracial man who was not born into wealth and who has international parentage and experience, he is in a position to understand the perspective of a wider range of Americans than any president in history. In other words, we are all “his people” and, instead of pandering to a minority who will never respect him no matter how far backwards he bends, he needs to get on with giving the rest of us the respect and support we deserve.

  • David Delt

    We have to become unpreoccupied with what has been done to us while rebuilding ourselves and our communities. President Obama is right. stop complaining and learn how to create communities that foster economic prosperity in our own neighborhoods. Support your brother the way the Jews support the Jews. The way the Koreans support the Koreans. Let Obama live!. He can’t win for losing. Don’t get mad at him, get mad at what we have allowed. The existence of “legitimate grievances” doesn’t absolve us of our own personal responsibilty to re-embrace a commitment to education, to re-embrace the institution of family, and in particular, the Black family. Continue to voice opposition to the racist, sexist, and demonizing forces that strive against our humanity while determing how “we” as a people can do better. C’mon Tavis. You’re intellegent enough to walk and chew gum. You can be critical without demonizing the President a’la Reverend Jesse Jackson saying he wanted to castrate the POTUS. I can’t object to one of your critiques of the Obama Administration, but the tone and tenor of your critiques is beginning to undermine the relevancy of those critiques. RESPECTFULLY!

  • Maria McDonnell

    I didn’t vote for Obama because he is black. I voted for his because of his platform–putting an end to wars, changing the way govt works w/r to lobbyists, etc., health care with a public option, ending tax cuts for the wealthy, controlling banks that steal from their customers, ending subsidies to big oil. But when he took office, he installed only Wall St operators in his economic cabinet. This year he hires Daly from JP Morgan Chase as his chief of staff. No one forced him to hire these people, people who don’t give a damn about people who have to work for a living. They care about saving the banks, bailing them out–that’s their priority. I’m very proud to have a black president, but he doesn’t govern for blacks and I don’t vote on the basis of color. Hold your tongue if you want to, but unemployment, poor wages, no benefits will continue to pummel black Americans on all levels. Now they are after the brothers and sisters in the post office. No one is going to vote for a Republican, but we’ve got to let our elected officials represent our needs or we’ll all be back picking cotton.

  • Marie Isenburg

    I just listened to the speech online. I’m going for the forest over the trees. I’ll check to see what kind of response the speech got, but over all, it’s got to be a winner. Representative Jackson Lee gave a great example of how to stand calm and firm. When she said that members of the Congressional Black Caucus were a tough bunch, I believed her. Thank you, Mr. Smiley.

  • DeAnn Gee

    I am a Black woman from Detroit. I voted straight Dem for 35 years. I became increasingly disillusioned at the game-playing of the Dems and their cynical use of Black voters. I voted for Pres. Obama with reservations. For the past three years I have studied his positions, appointments, directives in both domestic and foreign policy. I have watched him distance himself repeatedly from Black people while he courted, GLBT, Israel supporters, Wall street, rich people and to a lesser extent, Hispanics. Black people have suffered in silence while he ignored us and barely mentioned Black people or poor people It is beyond shameful to have a President who enjoyed 95% support from the most loyal base in the Dem party talk to us in such a disrespectful manner. His advisers have miscalculated Black voices have been silenced and they have been listening to a few Black “elites” who are beholden to this dysfunctional, exploitative Democratic Party machine.

    I have lived in Metro Detroit all my life. I have never seen such despair in my Black brothers and sisters. The dismissive attitude of President Obama has not gone unnoticed here.
    I will not support him or the Dem party any longer.

    President Obama will learn the hard way: you get what you give.
    He has squandered a gift.

  • Ira

    Why is everyone assuming that he was telling Blacks to stop complaining? How do you know he wasn’t trying to send a message to the other side, just hoping the people in the room would get it. We as Black people get worked up over the wrong things. The things we should get worked up about; we just blow off. This should not even be an issue, there was nothing controversial about his speech. Stick to the matters at hand; don’t get side tracked, that’s exactly what they want. How long are we going to sing “We Shall Overcome”? “We shudda done overcame already” lol…But we always loose our focus and this, taking about the “stop complaining”, is a perfect example of that. We should be beyond thinking about “Oh what are they going to think about us now?” Let’s hurry up and get the word out that we’re not that way. Come on people!!!

  • Ira

    We need to do more to help ourselves, instead of always looking for someone to lead the way. We need to create our own opportunities for each other instead of spending all of our money making others wealthy. We need to put ourselves in a position where we don’t have to depend on other communities for our well being. Why don’t we ask ourselves what we can do to help the President accomplish his goals instead of just sitting back watching and waiting for him to do it all; he needs our help.

Last modified: September 27, 2011 at 1:19 pm