Acceptance Speech for Mary Louise Smith Award
Acceptance of the Mary Louise Smith Award for Racial Justice from the YWCA
June 6, 2001
The honor of the award is enhanced by the name it bears. Mary Louise Smith is my hero, and role model. She was also a good friend and a mentor.
So many others deserve my gratitude- family, friends, the most incredible staff any one could have and a wonderful life partner who had to fight his own battles for racial equality. As a young real estate agent, he was determined to sell his black clients a home exactly where they wanted to live. He did. As a result, he was told he would never make it in real estate.
I have had some great examples to follow:
Judge Luther Glanton, to whose court I came at age 16 because of an abusive father. Judge Glanton made my father stop when others would have scoffed. I believe he saved my life.
Evelyn Davis with whom I worked at Tiny Tots at the very beginning and who taught me by example what a difference love and discipline makes in the lives of little children.
Larry Carter, who for decades led all of us and cajoled, persuaded, and demanded adherence to the letter and spirit of the law. He was a person of remarkable courage and compassion.
Willie Glanton, with whom I shared a stage in 1964 facing a crowd of 1000 shortly after the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. Some people in that crowd were members of the White Citizens Counsel. I watched in wonder as she answered their racist questions calmly and confidently. She treated them like human beings and maybe she made some of them into human beings. Like Mary Louise Smith, she exuded dignity and class and charm. I have strived to emulate her, though some of my enemies would be surprised to learn that I was trying to be charming.
And my dear friend Al Parrish with whom I brought the 1972 State Democratic Convention to a screeching halt, and from whom I learned what to do when charm doesn’t work.
Also Bob Wright, Joanna Cheatom, Mary Campos, Ila Placencia, Tom Mann, Paul Danforth, Louise Noun, Jacqui Easly, Speck Red, Naomi Mercer, Wayne Ford, Jimmy Porter, B.J. Ferguson, Ruth Anderson, Edna Griffin, Catherine Williams, Ruth Ann Gaines, Mary Chapman, Lucia Riddle, Irene Myles and so many others whose names I cannot mention. All of these women and men and all of you women and men, people of color and the colorless, who taught me, and showed me and picked me up when I fell down and set me back on the path and pushed me forward.
I dedicate this award to all of them and to my little Irish momma who drove me to NAACP meetings when I was a teenager and believed in the worth of everyone and who lived her life and died her death in the service of others. When she knew her stay on earth was nearly over, she decreed that people must not send flowers to her funeral, but instead, use their money to buy bags of groceries for the poor to decorate her casket. Three quarters of a ton of food was given to homeless shelters because as she was dying, she remembered the living and wanted hungry people to eat. I owe her not only my life but my life’s work.
I tried the very 1st case tried ever under the Iowa Civil Rights Act in 1969- 32 years ago. In that period, I was also marching and I was suing and I was singing and the song we sang – you all know it, “We Shall Overcome.” When I sang that song 32 years ago, holding hands with my friends, it was a statement of hope, it was a statement of faith, but it was not a statement of fact. It is still not a statement of fact. Until it is, I am in the battle. As long as racism lives and breathes and harms, I am in the battle. As long as the law’s promise of equality remains unfulfilled, I am in the battle.
Let me conclude with the famous words of Jill Ruckelshaus, Mary Louise’s very good friend to the first convention of the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus in 1973 in Ames and her call to arms adapted to today’s event:
We are in for a very long haul. I am asking for everything you have to give.
We will never give up.
Your will lose your youth, your sleep, your patience, your sense of humor and sometimes the understanding and support of people you love.
In return, I have nothing to offer you but your pride in being part of the struggle,
And all the dreams you have ever had,
For your children,
And your grandchildren,
And the future;
And the certain knowledge, that at the end of your days,
You will be able to look back and say for all of your life,
You gave all that you had,