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(Keynote Address: The 2005 "Project 2019 Annual Conference")
Those of you who have heard me speak at previous Project 2019 Banquets may recall that I am sometimes inspired to begin writing my remarks as a result of some news story that happens in the weeks or days leading up to this annual event. And, once again, this is the case. The news event that I am talking about happened 18 days ago on March 29th. But before I remind you of that event, allow me to tell you a short story that is the reason why this news item inspired my remarks.
If this story had a title, it would be called something like “5 Good Men.” Note that I did not say “5 Perfect Men” – just 5 good men who were also 5 good friends. Again, this is a short story – it would take a series of books to tell the complete story of their lives – all of their ups and downs – all of their failures and successes – the effect on the lives the 3 of the 5 who served in Viet Nam – and so forth. And, needless to say, it would take another series of books to tell the complete story of their group and individual friendships.
Starting with the oldest, these five good friends are: Dan Roseman, who has been a Chicago police officer for more than 27 years, Robert Allen who teaches at Malcolm X College, Charles Wilcher, who spent 26 plus years in the U.S. Air Force, Pastor Charles Murray of the Resurrection United Methodist Church, and me, Charles Sanford – the baby of the group. However, being the youngest of this group means little because we were all born in the same year.
If I remember correctly, I think I met Charles Murray in 3rd grade and Dan in about 5th grade – and I think that Dan and Charles Murray already knew each other by then. I met Charles Wilcher in 7th grade – who already knew Robert Allen – who may have already known Charles Murray – or something like that. I could have gotten all the facts straight if I had chosen to discuss this with them before hand. In any case, by the time we all ended at John Marshall High School on the West Side of Chicago, we were well on our way to creating a five way friendship that has lasted for the last 45 years.
I could spend hours telling you stories about our youth and all the incredible “adventures” that has led to the gray hair and less than youthful physiques that we now have. But, let me cut to the chase and tell you what is so unique about our individual friendships –some of which began 50 years ago – and our group friendship that is 45 years old and still going strong.
First of all, we are five black men who were born at a time when racism was alive and well in America – and we survived. We are five black men who grew up in America when education for blacks had a very low priority – and we all went to college. We are 5 black men who live in America at a time when a disproportionate number of black men are incarcerated – and we have managed to avoid the criminal justice system. And, we are five black men who have worked hard and taken care of our families.
But, perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of this story of these five black friends is that we are all here this evening to once again celebrate our friendship. And this brings me back to that news story that I mentioned a couple of minutes ago. What happened on March 29th that inspired me to begin writing my remarks for this evening was the announcement of the death of Johnny Cocharan.
Now, the first reason that I was affected by the death of Johnny Cochran is the fact that he was an intelligent, well-educated black man. And regardless of whether you regarded him as a hero, as a villain, or somewhere in between, you must give him his due. He accumulated enough knowledge in his life to learn how the system worked – and he used that knowledge to beat “the man” at his own game. How many of us can say that about ourselves or others that we know?
The second reason why I was affected by Johnny Cochran’s death is because on March 27th, a couple of days before Johnny Cochran died, the Center For Disease Control released the latest figures for life expectancy in the United States. The good news was that life expectancy increased in all segments of the American population. The bad news for me, my 4 friends, your sons, your husbands, and your fathers is that black men still have lowest life expectancy in America.
The life expectancy for white women is now 80.5 years – for black women it is 76.1 years – for white men it is 75.4 years. And the life expectancy for black men is 69.2 years.
Johnny Cochran was 67 years old when he died. And what is important to me is that, even if I make it 69.2 years, I will still fall short of making it to the year 2019.
Let me make two quick points here. First of all, I know that I am probably giving my mother, Lucinda, a headache right now. I know that she is thinking: “Good Lord Almighty, what is my son talking about. These folks did not pay good money to come here to listen to him talk about death and dying.”
So let me apologize to her and everyone else because I do not intend to bring anyone down on this joyous occasion. But, let’s face it folks, it is not death “and” taxes, it is only death that we can not avoid. We were constantly bombarded with the pictures and the videos of the tsunami that killed hundred of hundreds of thousands in December. There is the continuing body count coming out of Iraq. There was the death of Pope John Paul. And I suspect that as a result of the Terri Schiavo case, at least a few of us have put together, or at least discussed, a living will in case we wind up brain dead.
The second point that I want to make – with apologies in advance to all the ministers here this evening – is that people have said that I missed my calling by not being a preacher. And the fact that I started off this evening by taking up a collection and now I am spending the rest of my time talking about death and dying – will really convince some folks that they were right.
But, in fact, there “are” some jobs where death comes with the territory. And although you may not realize it, as a historian, I am confronted with death on a regular basis. I study and write about the millions of black Americans who, for 246 years, over 12 generations, lived and died in Slavery. I study and write about the millions of black Americans who, for 103 years, over 5 generations, lived and died during the Jim Crow era. And for many of us who were alive during the Civil Rights movement, we could make a long list of those who have gone on to their glory.
And, then there is this “annual event.” The first one was in 2000 and I would like to believe that they will continue until at least the year 2019. But, the fact is, for many of us who attended this event in previous years, we know that there are those who are not here to join us this evening. And next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, there will be others who will not be here to celebrate with us.
This brings me back to my story of the five good friends and one of the reasons for this discussion of death and dying. My friend Robert Allen always invites me to speak to his classes and to do Black History Month presentations at Malcolm X College where he teaches. As part of my presentation, I remind these young college students that Project 2019 is not for me and my generation. Project 2019 is for them, for their generation, and for future generations of black Americans – and the proof of the pudding is that, based on life expectancy, I may not even make it to the 2019.
For the record, Robert always smiles, points at me and interjects that: “Mr. Sanford might not make it – but “I” will be here in the year 2019.”
One other thing that Robert does is to introduce me as “the founder” of the Project 2019 Movement. However, I always make of point of introducing myself as “only one of the founders” of the Project 2019 movement – and I will tell you why this is the case.
The following quote is from a work by John Donne. He wrote these famous words while convalescing from a severe illness in 1624 – 5 years after Slavery began in America.
“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
This famous meditation of Donne's introduces two major themes. One is that – mortality and death “is” a constant companion of life. The other is that people are not isolated from one another – mankind is fundamentally interconnected. And this is so critical for black Americans to understand. If we are to succeed as a people, we must feel that connection to all the black Americans who came before us – and we must feel that same connection to all black Americans who are alive today – regardless of the circumstances of your lives or their lives. We are “all” members of the same congregation.
Beyond these two “themes” of John Donne’s work, I would like to add my own spin to his words to include the interconnectivity of “ideas.”
Project 2019 would not have existed were it not for you Charles Wilcher, Dan Roseman, Charles Murray, and Robert Allen. What do you think we were doing during all those thousands of hours that, even as teenagers, we discussed, debated, and argued about everything from the nature and the value of pride – to whether black celebrities should marry outside of their race? What were doing was “founding” Project 2019.
Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for you Calvin Giles, or Will Saddler, Andy Singleton, Jim Morgan, Charlie Williams, Frank Gillie and all our other friends who spent our time learning about the world during the 1960’s and 70’s at the University of Illinois.
Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for you Sandra Bempah and you Mary Gallimore
Debra Harris, Guy Harris, Michele Small and thousands of other good friends that I grew up with – and those that I met later in life.
Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for my pre-teen years as a Baptist and my years as a Seventh Day Adventist. And Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for my church families, friends, and relatives like Dorothy Wilson, Laurie Collins, Tommy and Bessie Holman, and rest of my wonderful Greater Metro family.
Needless to say, Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for my mother, Lucinda Acker, my Aunt Ruby, my Aunt Sallie, my Aunt Shirley – and my brother and my 4 sisters – my wonderful brother-in-law Wendell and all of my other family members and in-laws that it would take much too long to list individually. As I have noted in past, they contributed mightily to the founding of Project 2019.
Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for all of my ex-wives. Actually, there are only two, but you know how people make stuff up… And Project 2019 certainly would not have come to be if it were not for my current (and my last) wife Rose. She has spent the last 22 years founding Project 2019 right along side me.
Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for my son, my stepson, and my daughter. Project 2019 would not have come to be were it not for my all my nieces and nephews – on my side and on my wife’s side of the family.
Carla James may or may not remember how much her Aunt Rose and I bugged her until she finally finished school. And, in fact, Carla was the very first recipient of one of the Project 2019 Hero Awards that we distributed this evening.
And Tamicka James, who was a frustrated teenage at the time, may not have known that she was becoming a founder of Project when one summer night I insisted that she go for a ride with me. Without telling her our destination, I drove her through some of the worst slums on the South Side of Chicago and then drove the short distance from these slums to the Sears Tower – where I had a window office on the 50th floor. And, in a scene, straight out of movie “Scarface,” I directed her attention on that crystal clear evening to the magnificent, brightly lit Chicago skyline and I said to her: “do the right thing, get a good education, and the world can be yours.” I choose to believe that I helped to inspire Tamicka, but make no mistake, it was because of her hard work and dedication that she earned her Masters degree in Public Health.
And, you, Curtis James, you were easy. I think it was because you grew up in a Project 2019 “atmosphere.” I don’t know if you remember all of the time we spent talking about life and your future – or just sitting around listening to music on my stereo system – which you eventually talked my out of. But, I remember that during those conversations, when I would bring up college, you would for the most part “give me the hand.” Your response was always, “I’m going to college. In fact, I can’t wait to go to college.” You did – and you made all of us very proud.
So, what you should know, Curtis, is that you are a founder of Project 2019. What each of you who I have named – and the thousands who I have not named – what you should all know is that – we all founders of Project 2019.
John Donne said that “no man is an island” – and I, therefore, submit to you that no idea is an island – entire of itself. Just as the person you see standing before this evening is the person that you created – I submit to you that, “collectively,” you are, in fact, more responsible for the existence of Project 2019 than I could ever be. I am merely a vessel.
And, needless to say, because of the interconnectivity of black Americans as a people, Project 2019 would not have existed without Martin Luther King. It would not have existed without Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Malcolm X, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. DeBois, Harriet Tubman and the hundreds of well known and the thousands of unknown black and white heroes who have gotten us to this point in out history.
Indeed, if you are looking for a true founder of the Project 2019 movement, it is probably an unknown slave who lived more than 300 years ago. He or she was caught attempting to learn to read or write by moonlight in the woods behind a slave cabin. He was probably beaten, or worse – and as soon as his wounds healed, he sneaked back out to the woods and continued his pursuit of education and knowledge.
The remainder of my remarks are especially meant for all my new friends and relatives and supporters of Project 2019 who I met after first putting the words Project 2019 down on paper.
Let me begin by reminding you of the old saying that “you get to pick your friends – but you are stuck with your relatives.” This is to say that there may be a couple of people who are here this evening because they “have” to be.
But, “you,” Bishop Corder and Elder Atwater made the trip from Milwaukee because you “want” to be here. Donielle and Denise, Melanie, Kai, and Jeanette – you are all here because you want to be. And, you Milleka, are simply here because there is no other place on earth that you would rather be.
I sincerely thank you and everyone else who is now a part of the movement for being here this evening. And let me assure you that you “own” Project 2019 as much, if not more so than anyone else in this room. However, let it be known that “together,” we are all equally responsible for ensuring the success of the Project 2019 movement.
And, make no mistake about it, Project 2019 must be a “national” movement if it is to succeed. This is the only way to break out of the plantation mentality that has been “engineered” into us for going on 400 years. That plantation mentality that causes us to “only” be concerned about “me and mine.”
Yes, the Sanford family plantation may be doing just fine, or the Jones family plantation may be doing just fine, and the Johnson family plantation may be doing just fine. But, let me remind you that, at the end of the day, we are all black folks – and unless and until all black folks are free, then none of us are truly free.
And now, whether you like it or not, all of you who are here this evening are a part of the Project 2019 family. And, if Project 2019 succeeds, it will not be because of this one single black man you see standing before you this evening. It will be because of all of you and your efforts. And, sad to say, if Project 2019 fails, it will be because “you” did not judge it worthy of “your” time and efforts to make it succeed.
I will end my remarks as I often do by reminding you, that if it is in the Almighty Creator’s plan, in 14 years, the year 2019 will arrive. And, if it also in the Almighty Creator’s plan, then all, some, or most of us will still be here. But, even if we are not, there will be a lot of black folks that we know and love who will be here – and millions of other black folks who we don’t know but should still love, who will be here in the year 2019 and beyond,
In any case, let it be known that there are two possible scenarios waiting for the millions of black Americans who “will” wake up on January 1st in the year 2019.
One possibility is that the year 2019 will be a year of black American agonizing over our 400 years of enslavement and oppression. A year of being reminded that we have the least amount of political power. A year of being reminded that we have the least amount of financial power. A year of being reminded of all of our social ills – the disproportionate number of black men in prison – our high teenage pregnancy rate – gangs, drugs, black on black crime – and, of course, the fact that black men die sooner than women and white men.
But, there is the second possibility – and this is the reason why we are here this evening. That possibility is that on that January morning in the year 2019, it will be the beginning a year of “celebrating” one of the greatest victories in the 400-year history of black America.
A victory that will prove, yet again, the resilience, the resourcefulness, the strength of character, and the pride of black America.
A victory that will begin to pay the incredible debt that we owe to our parents and grandparents and all past generations of black Americans.
And, finally, a victory that will prepare the way for a brighter future for our children, our grandchildren and all future generations of black Americans.
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