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‘Let’s keep this history alive’: Descendants of iconic Black leaders gather at White House

Vice president blasts ‘those who would attempt to edit it out or rewrite it’

Vice President Kamala Harris addresses an event with descendants of civil rights leaders and abolitionists at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday. Stephen Benjamin, director of the Office of Public Engagement, also appears.
Vice President Kamala Harris addresses an event with descendants of civil rights leaders and abolitionists at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday. Stephen Benjamin, director of the Office of Public Engagement, also appears. (Tom WIlliams/CQ Roll Call)

Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington died well before Kenneth Morris Jr. was born, but they always felt present to Morris, thanks to the stories his older relatives would tell.

He remembers as a child sitting at the knee of his great-grandmother, Fannie Douglass, and listening intently to her tales of “the man with the great big white hair,” or hearing his great-aunt describe her relationship with her father.

“Hands that touched the great Frederick Douglass, and hands that touched the great Booker T. Washington, also touched mine,” Morris said Tuesday at a Black History Month event hosted by the White House.

Descendants of several civil rights leaders and abolitionists came together at the event, which was part of a larger trip to Washington for the group. Led by Morris, president of the nonprofit Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, the descendants traveled to the capital in time for Feb. 14, the day Douglass chose to celebrate his birth.

During their stop at the White House, Morris said it was energizing to see so many of them in the same room at the same time. Their ancestors include the likes of Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. 

“The president and the vice president are both committed to honoring the legacy of change-makers and your families, not just in his words, but by the work of this administration and the vision for America,” Stephen Benjamin, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, told the crowd in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. 

President Joe Biden wasn’t present at the event, which came in the wake of a recent Gallup poll that showed that Black and Hispanic voters are leaving the Democratic Party. This week the Biden campaign announced a new ad series highlighting Biden’s commitments to Black Americans. 

Even though the gathering wasn’t a campaign event, Biden’s record featured prominently at the Black History Month celebration, which was also attended by members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Advisers pointed to Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. The president also established the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, signed a bill into law making Juneteenth a federal holiday and presided over an economy that saw record-low unemployment for Black workers, Benjamin said.

The gathering this week was a starting point for further action, Morris said.

“Having carried the ancestral weight of history upon our shoulders, the descendants have convened to help guide our nation in a much needed spirit of collaboration, unity and social justice,” he said.

And Vice President Kamala Harris, who made a surprise appearance, said the country owed it to Morris and other descendants in attendance “to continue to carry on their legacy through our deeds, our words and our actions.”

“Let’s keep this history alive, especially in the face of those who would attempt to edit it out or rewrite it, according to their view of what the world is or should be,” she continued, seemingly alluding to a controversial Black history curriculum unveiled last year by Republicans in Florida of which Harris was sharply critical. “Let’s continue to celebrate our heroes.”

Alabama Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell also warned of extremists “who seek to erase our history and roll back our progress.”

“We should take a lesson from our foremothers and our forefathers,” Sewell said. “It wasn’t by happenstance that John Lewis and Dr. [Martin Luther] King came to Selma, Alabama. No, they were tacticians. They were strategists. They were those who knew that to make progress, we had to make some noise.”

Sewell, who was joined Tuesday by more than a handful of her CBC colleagues, last year reintroduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which advocates say would protect the right to vote by restoring protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which the Supreme Court gutted in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder.

House Democrats in July also reintroduced the Freedom to Vote Act, which they say would expand access to the ballot, and made voting legislation their top legislative priority in the 118th Congress. Neither bill has gotten a vote in the GOP-controlled House, as Republicans pursue their own election overhaul proposals that they say would strengthen voter confidence in elections, while Democrats argue they cater to Donald Trump and election deniers.

“We’ve already filed [bills like the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act] five times since that 2013 decision of Shelby v. Holder,” Sewell said. “The caucus, we know that we can be tired. We know that we can be downright upset. But what we cannot do is give up.”

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