Earlier this month, leaders of seven of the nation’s top civil rights organizations met with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to discuss racial equity, social justice, and increased diversity in the Biden-Harris Cabinet and among senior advisors.
Afterwards, those leaders held a media briefing by Zoom to share their thoughts on the meeting, with all sounding optimistic about what has been described as an “important meeting and a positive step in the right direction” as the Biden-Harris administration prepares to take office.
What was supposed to be an hour-long meeting lasted nearly two hours, said National Urban League President & CEO Marc H. Morial, with topics ranging from Cabinet selections to prison and criminal justice reform to economic equity and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
National Action Network founder Rev. Al Sharpton also left the meeting feeling optimistic, adding that the conversation with President-Elect Biden was “candid”.
“We did not pull any punches and he didn’t either,” Sharpton said.
“This was not a meeting to broker for anybody,” Rev. Sharpton said. “This was a meeting to stand up for the constituents we represent in our organizations. We came to make sure promises made are promises kept.”
In addition to Morial and Rev. Sharpton, Melanie L. Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Vanita Gupta, president and CEO, of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP took part in the meeting which also included top Biden advisor Cedric Richmond.
While there were overlapping areas of concern and discussion, each leader represented his or her organization, with each bringing a distinct agenda for the incoming administration to address.
“What we saw today was a passionate Joe Biden and a passionate Kamala Harris,” said Morial, describing the tone of the meeting. “Today was the beginning of a working relationship with the administration.
Despite the optimism, Morial cautioned that the test would come by measuring the results.
“While it was “refreshing” to a hear both Biden and Harris confirm their commitment to racial justice, we will judge that commitment by the results and we look forward to more significant appointments so he can fulfill his responsibility,” Morial said.
Cabinet appointments were not the only issue for the organizations’ leaders, who also sought a commitment from the incoming administration on everything from restoring and protecting voting rights to expanding criminal justice reform.
For his part, Morial said he stressed the need to close the racial wealth gap during the meeting.
“Every single policy issued must include elements to address the racial wealth gap,” Morial said.
Voting rights, issues surrounding policing, along with federal consent decrees that largely went unenforced during the Trump administration topped concerns for Sharpton and the National Action Network. Sharpton said he is looking to Biden-Harris to undo damage done in the area of racial justice over the last four years
“I stressed that he was succeeding the most racist administration in recent history. We must repair the damage done by that administration. When Donald Trump became president the Justice Department immediately withdrew from voting rights lawsuits and federal consent decrees. The Biden administration must immediately restore those consents decrees and (Section1 and Section 4 of) the Voting Rights Acts. You can’t mourn John Lewis on one side and not move on what he fought for.”
Ifill also spoke on issues of civil rights and policing, specifically saying she wants to see the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act passed and expects Biden to “bring his power and voice” to move the legislation forward. The legislation is designed to combat police misconduct, excessive force, and racial bias in policing. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on a mostly party-line vote of 236–181, but has yet to advance in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Ifill says that as President, Biden will have some ability to move the policies outlined in the bill forward, even if the Senate does not get on board.
“He has other powers,” she said. “We urge him to devolve into the bill to see what he can do by executive order. People want change now, and we should not allow Mitch McConnell to hold hostage these pieces of legislation.