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