Civil rights leader, former NAACP president inspires crowd at MLK Convocation

Benjamin Jealous urged the crowd to reach across political and ethnic lines and form broad coalitions at the 33rd annual convocation in downtown Santa Cruz.

In a passionate, history-minded keynote address, the former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous urged the crowd to form multiethnic coalitions to resist oppression, hate, and division during the 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on Thursday.

In spite of the rainy weather, the convocation drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Students from Seaside, Marina and other area high schools, were out in force.

At various times in his keynote address, Jealous, who led and helped revitalize the NAACP during his tenure from 2008 to 2012, invoked the events of September, 1663, in Gloucester County, Virginia, when slaves and indentured servants plotted to revolt against the tobacco planters who were exploiting them.

The rebellion failed, but Jealous urged the audience to remember this time when oppressed people reached across ethnic lines to fight back, before those in power sowed discord and division between black and white members of the underclass.

Comparing politics to physics, Jealous told the audience, which included his parents as well as his 100-year-old grandmother, a grandchild of former slaves, that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and objects in motion eventually return to their original state.”

In America, he added, it is important to remember that this ‘original state’ was not hate and division between black and white. This animus, he said, did not come from within but was imposed from above, by the people who stood to gain from such divisions.

Jealous also offered many examples of 21st century coalitions, movements or actions in which ethnic divisions, or even political affiliations, were irrelevant.

He spoke of the time he introduced a speech by Senator Bernie Sanders, deep in the heart of the Ozarks, where the overwhelmingly white audience applauded loudly at the same sections of the speech that roused mostly African American audiences in large Midwestern cities, including Sanders’ call for an end to police shootings of unarmed African Americans.

Jealous also invoked prison reform, and how social justice and fiscal responsibility can lead to coalitions in the “activist wings” of either party. “This is what gives me hope,” he said. “This is the true lesson of what we saw in a year of disruptive politics when the most important thing, in either party, was the need to help working people.”

In his closing remarks, Jealous urged African Americans and other groups to embrace their own power and wield it at the ballot box. He invoked the large numbers of black voters in key states where Republicans won in November 2016. In every example he pointed out, the number of unregistered black voters was far greater than the Republican margin of victory.

”We can be hopeful because we have what it takes to win right now,” Jealous said. “We can make the future come faster. We simply have to decide.”

Jealous is currently a partner at Kapor Capital, investing in companies with positive social impact. He is part of a longstanding tradition of powerful speakers at the convocation. Over the years, this event has drawn such luminaries as Alicia Garza, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Yolanda King, Maxine Waters, Julian Bond, Van Jones, Anna Deavere Smith, Bell Hooks, and Cornel West.

Another emotional highlight was a strong statement of support from Chancellor George Blumenthal for UC Santa Cruz’s roughly 400 undocumented students, who are feeling “particularly vulnerable” under the new administration, he said.

“I have told them that UC Santa Cruz as a campus, and the University of California as a whole, stand with them, their families, and their communities,” Blumenthal said to loud applause. “Our commitment to them is steadfast. We will protect their privacy and civil rights. Our police will not partner with any government agencies to enforce federal immigration law. We will not contact, detain or arrest anyone on the basis of their immigration status.”

“We will continue to admit undocumented students,” Blumenthal said. “We will not cooperate with any federal registry based on religion, national origin, race or sexual orientation. This is the way forward: banding together, supporting one another, and finding our voices. I believe Dr. King would be proud.”

Another highlight was the announcement of the Tony Hill Award, named for a longtime advocate for social and economic justice in Santa Cruz County, known for his skills as a community bridge-builder and mediator.  Hill died in 2007 at age 62.

This year’s winner is Doron Comerchero, the visionary founder of FoodWhat, a nonprofit that has been using sustainable farming and healthy food to turn around the lives of impoverished and struggling youth since 2007. During his remarks, Comerchero sent out some “big love” to all the youth who had benefitted from the organization. 

“What is this organization with the funny name?” he said. “FoodWhat Is a youth empowerment and justice organization created to challenge inequities and serve high school students with the fewest resources. It gives them a safe space to step into their power and amplify their voices. He then led the audience in a mighty rallying cry of “FOOD, WHAT?!”