By Attorney Peter Graham Cohn
Published in the Sun Reporter Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Area
Date: March 8, 2018

The following Keynote Address was delivered by Attorney Peter Graham Cohn on March 3, 2018, at the Village Foundation Fundraising Dinner in Las Vegas, Nevada, to fund scholarships for students of all colors from academically challenged and low socio-economic backgrounds. Dr. Linda Young is the President and Founder of the Foundation. Attorney Cohn is the Acting President of the NAACP-National Voter Fund and has had a working relationship with the students of the Clark County School District, their families and community since 1989 regarding educational equity and voter engagement issues.

Good evening, Dr. Young, the Village Foundation family and Nevada citizens of goodwill who are committed to transforming the lives of our children for the good so that they achieve their educational best and their desired life goals. I hope that these remarks will underscore the importance of the work that you do in serving students, their families and community.

As you know, we are all called to service at various times in our lives. We are called to service at times, in the words of the old Church song, “to help one another as we pass along this way” and are called to service to build and further families, communities and, yes, our Nation. As you will recall, the NAACP was founded and called to service in 1909 to end lynching, to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination and segregation in the United States, and, to, among other things, ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority groups and citizens. The NAACP –National Voter Fund (“NAACP-NVF or NVF”) was established in 2000 as the 501(c)(4) arm of the NAACP. Moreover, NAACP-NVF’s purpose is to help America have a greater participatory democracy by encouraging more people of goodwill to run for office and to turn out at the polls so that the Nation might have pro-civil rights leaders at every level of government. On behalf of both organizations, I have the honor of bringing you greetings this evening and commending you for stepping up and answering the call by doing your great work over the years.

I am humbled by your request for me to be your key note speaker for tonight. So, why am I humbled? The simple reason is because you have asked me to share some reflections with you in the great tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that might shed further light on how we can further answer the call of service together in these challenging times.

In giving your request some further consideration, I thought it might be helpful to focus on two major themes of Dr. King during the few minutes for my remarks. They are:

1) “The Fierce Urgency Of Now” for “We The People” to retake control of our democracy through a full court press of voter engagement and participation to achieve civil and human rights in education, employment, police practices, correctional reform, immigrant rights, women’s rights, the environment, LGBTQ rights, war and peace, and many other vital areas of our lives; and,

2) “Ordinary People Can Do Extraordinary Things” not only in Nevada but across the Nation.

“Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things”

If you bear with me, I would like to share with you why I believe you are very special “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” Often we have nameless and wonderful “ordinary people” in our midst and we do not see them or recognize them in the same way as a Martin or Malcom. Yet, they are doing so much good for the youth and people of our community. We need to lift them up and we need to lift you up.

I often encourage young people to pursue a path of public service. The reason I tell them is that they cannot go wrong in such a field because they will not only make a major contribution to our society but they will be guaranteed to meet some of the most wonderful and inspiring people in the world.

I think the church, civil rights and community leaders and lawyers that I have met over the years have inspired me and – I am sure – have inspired all of us. Just consider the significance of meeting the likes of an intellectual and civil rights icon like the Honorable Julian Bond or NAACP General Counsels like the late Attorney Thomas Atkins and retired Judge and Attorney Nathaniel Jones. Working together, Jones and Atkins continued and fashioned a legal strategy to make the equal educational opportunity mandate of Brown v. Board Of Education applicable not only to jurisdictions in the South but also in the North, the East and the West. And, of course, in those same categories of inspiring souls, I include each of you.

In every city in which we have been involved, there has been a cadre of leaders who have anchored our legal work. Nevada was no exception when we were called here in 1989 to focus on equal rights not only for the students but also for the faculty of the Clark County School District (CCSD). At the time, the referral to Tom Atkins and his legal team was actually made by a defense counsel whose practice was defending school districts. You can only imagine what that says about the level of respect that even opposing counsel had for Tom.

But, Tom, also had the great respect of judges as well. I will never forget the touching response that the late Judge William Orrick of the U.S. District Court had when he learned of Tom’s diagnosis with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He called a special session of the court in chambers with counsel for all the parties and he permitted Tom to appear by phone – a practice that the Judge had always proudly asserted that he was not inclined to permit lawyers to do. The purpose of the hearing was to personally thank Tom for his work on behalf of school children in not only San Francisco but also the Nation.

When Tom’s legal team – including expert Researcher Wanda Hubbard and Psychologist Robert Green – arrived on scene here in Clark County, we found such gifted and talented leaders and members of the Las Vegas Alliance of Black School Educators, a tremendous group of church leaders, NAACP and other civil rights leaders – and of course parents and students wanting to make their school district fairer for all in Clark County. And you did.

In addition to those parents and students, you had such exceptional Plaintiff leaders, like, Dr. Linda Young and the late Yolanda Arrington whose family is here tonight. As you are well aware, they, in their own unique ways, knew how to stand up for children and bring resources their way including extraordinarily talented educators to CCSD.

Among other key leaders, there was also the late Rev. Jesse Scott – the then NAACP President and respected civic leader after whom the CCSD wisely and most appropriately named a school in his honor.
I believe that we have all been living witnesses to the extraordinary things that you have accomplished over time here in Clark County and Nevada for the good of all students. I cannot emphasize it enough that school desegregation cases, which are in reality educational equity cases benefit all students in that whenever educational resources are fairly shared across a system, it benefits all children.

As our NAACP-National Voter Fund has continued voter engagement work here in Nevada, the unbroken chain of relationships with the ministers and other community leaders continues to this day with the consistent vigilance and good work of Rev. Rogers and the Ministers Alliance Association of Southern Nevada. Similarly, Rev. Ralph Williamson and Rev. Leonard Jackson have conducted exemplary text book voter engagement work as the leaders of the Faith Organizing Alliance from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church with the support of the NAACP-NVF.

The NAACP-NVF has been so fortunate to have Mr. Lonnie Feemster serve as its NVF Nevada State Director. He has graciously and faithfully served us over the years in both Northern and Southern Nevada.

Because all these efforts are team efforts, I would like to ask all those involved with the school desegregation case here in federal court – CCSD students, staff, legal team or their families – or with the NAACP-NVF or other voter engagement activities to please stand so that we can acknowledge all of you as special “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” Thank you.

“The Fierce Urgency Of Now” For “We The People” Seeking To Form A More Perfect Union

Dr. King provided us an ideal example of what we should do when we are confronted by challenging and difficult times. He encouraged us when we are troubled at midnight and cannot sleep to listen to that inner spiritual voice saying: “Martin Luther King Jr, Stand up for Righteousness, Stand up for Justice and stand up for Truth …”

I ask you: Are we not at a point in our nation’s history that we might describe as very challenging both domestically and internationally? I agree with you. Yes, we are.

In considering “The Fierce Urgency Of now” in addressing our current plight, we admire you for another reason. You have always stood up for Righteousness, Justice and Truth. You represent the very best in America in that you celebrate the diversity of your three Congressional Districts here in Southern Nevada. You vote in ways that favor civil and human rights. You are uniquely positioned and have the capacity to influence the outcome of these three Congressional races here. While you have historically achieved quite positive results in Congressional District 1 and without taking that race for granted, you know very well that Congressional Districts 3 and 4 can turn on what might be referred to as a handful or a couple of thousand votes. We learned that very hard lesson when a pro-civil rights candidate who won in 2012 was defeated in 2014 by a small margin of voters after big corporate money came flowing in during the last 30 days before the election.

What is the implication for 2018? I know you also know this better than me. But, there are two open House seats in Congressional Districts 3 and 4; and you have a U.S. Senate seat at play. Even though it is early, we need to be messaging within our church, temple, mosque, civic and labor communities about the importance of civil rights and human rights in every election. This has been the backbone of the NAACP and the NAACP-National Voter Fund call. You have the respected voice to encourage everyone to fully participate in our American democracy by voting.
Moreover, to make our democracy work, we have to encourage the greater donor community to not fall in line with the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that gave corporations the right to spend unlimited sums of money on federal elections. Accordingly, donors should not funnel massive sums of money into the corporate Super-PAC’s and the parties. We need to encourage them to give to the grassroots organizations that are in touch with the new young and up and coming generations of Americans – who have a positive and respectful vision of how our country should be. We must engage them where we find them from high schools, colleges, training programs and the labor force.

Whether our next generation of young voters are involved in religious or civic settings or not, they fully understand the biblical or political affirmation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” We – the people – are sadly confronted today with forces in government that seek to divide us and cause us to question our basic ethics and values.

TRUTH has a place in our personal, family, church and community lives. But, it also has a place in our governmental lives from the White House, the Congress and our state and local governments. And, it is absolutely unacceptable for there to be over 2000 documented lies emanating from our White House in a single year. And, as Martin so eloquently and often reminded us: “TRUTH crushed to earth shall rise again ….”

We are told by some governmental leaders that their favorite book is the Bible. We see them wearing ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of the 40 days of Lent. But, when we reflect on whether they are prepared to act to carry out the truths reflected in the good book, we find a much different story or practice. As you recall, it is often said that the most important life measure is: “how did we treat the least of our brothers and sisters.” This thought is often universally translated at end of life memorials or services in almost every faith or non-faith tradition.

One place where that universal tradition is articulated is in the 25th Chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew describing the King’s invitation to eternal life: “Come, blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

“For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; naked and you covered me; sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.

“Then the just will answer him saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty, and give you drink? And, when did we see you a stranger and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?

“And, answering the King will say to them: “Amen I say to you as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me.”

If that is the true standard for assessing a just and purposeful life, then how do we square executive orders and legislative acts that are so contrary to this measure? In applying these standards to some of our existing governmental leaders, the King’s truthful judgment would actually be as follows:

When I was hungry and thirsty, you did not give me to eat or drink: you took away my food stamps or SNAP benefits.

When I was a stranger and an immigrant, you did not take me in but you tried to ban me from your country.

When I had lived my life as a Dreamer in the U.S. and served the Nation in the armed forces or other areas of public service, you held me hostage and acted to deport me.

When, as a United States citizen, I pleaded to keep my family together in the only country I had ever known, you acted to deport my parents and other relatives helping to raise me as a responsible citizen.

When I was naked, you wanted to cut my benefits in the name of entitlement reform and tax cuts for the wealthy.

When I was homeless with mental health challenges, you closed or failed to fund the mental health facilities that I needed and instead you put me in jail.

When I was in jail or prison, you did not visit me but you issued Justice Department orders to make me be confined longer.

When I was sick and in need of health care, you doggedly acted to cut my health care by undermining the Affordable Care And Patient Protection Act.

When I wanted to stop the mass killings of children and others in schools and other public venues, you falsely asserted that AR-15 assault rifles and other weapons of war are protected by the 2nd amendment to the United States constitution. But, they are not.

When Eastern European forces from Russia were actively invading the United States at our Western border to undermine our elections, you failed your oaths of office “to protect and defend the United States from all enemies foreign and domestic” and, instead, you chose to waste billions of dollars to build a Berlin style wall on our Southern border to keep out the very good people of Mexico and Latin America who seek a better life for their families in the United States and desire to contribute in a myriad of ways to the quality of life in America.

These TRUTHFUL facts and judgments cannot be crushed to earth, and, they should certainly rise again on each election day of 2018.

In meeting the “Fierce Urgency of Now,” we need to stand up for Truth and Justice by registering everyone to vote, by educating citizens on the issues at play in every election and mobilizing them to go to the polls for the June primary and the November midterm elections.

Thank you for inviting me and for continuing your great work here in Clark County not only on behalf of Nevada but also on behalf of the Nation. Peace and Unity.

Attorney Peter Graham Cohn is a social worker and civil rights attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2000, Mr. Cohn worked with the late Honorable Julian Bond and the NAACP National Board of Directors to create the NAACP-National Voter Fund as the 501(c)(4) arm of the NAACP.

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