Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Sheila Cherfilus McCormick (center) pose with Democratic elected officials from Palm Beach and Broward counties at Black History Month event.
Hakeem Jeffries, the number 1 Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives “just dropped by” the Ben, a luxury hotel in downtown West Palm Beach, on Monday night to tell about 500 Democrats gathered there: “Be encouraged.”
Be encouraged, he said, even though we here in Florida are living through what he called a “backlash moment” where there are some “rough folks” who want to “erase Black history” and “turn back the clock.” He didn’t name names but everyone at the event knew who he was talking about.
Be encouraged, he said, because “an amazing part of American exceptionalism on this American journey is there have always been just enough good folks to overcome the rough folks and allow America to advance.”
Rep. McCormick invited Jeffries
It was all part of the theme of his speech – because Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, N.Y., the Minority Party Leader of the House, of course didn’t just drop by. He was invited to West Palm Beach by U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus McCormick to help her Congressional District 20 celebrate Black History Month. He and McCormick congratulated and posed for photos with her five “Forward Together” honorees: longtime Lauderhill Mayor Ken Thurston; Denise Albritton, CEO of Bus One, the first minority-owned charter bus company in South Florida; Charles “Chuck” Ridley, senior community organizer for the SEIU; the Rev. Dr. Tony Drayton, of Riviera Beach; and Dr. Debra Robinson, longtime Palm Beach County School Board member.
So, we have Jeffries, historic in his own right as Congress’ first African-American Minority Party Leader, giving a speech about Black history during Black History Month in a red state where the governor on the first day of that month decided he would no longer allow the Advanced Placement Black History Course be taught in the state’s high schools. Let us also remind you that McCormick’s district is composed of parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, two of the bluest counties in Florida despite inroads that Republicans made in Palm Beach County in 2022.
Jeffries’ presence in West Palm Beach was a sweet Black History Month moment, but it also was a hardball political statement.
Black history is American history
As Jeffries summarized, “Here we are, Black History Month 2023, and we know there are some folks who want to erase Black history. Let’s be clear. Black history is American history. African Americans are central to this journey here of the United States of America. The pain of the journey, the trials and tribulations of course, but also the successes of American exceptionalism. We should all be proud of the fact, we should share it with our young people, that it was an African American, a black man who invented the cotton gin…and it was an African American who invented a lot of the technology that all of you here use in your smart phones” -- with about half a dozen other technologies between the cotton gin and the smart phone that an African American invented or helped invent.
The other half of Jeffries’ theme was that a reoccurring pattern in Black history, American history, is “whenever we have had moments of progress in the United States of America, they often are followed by moments of backlash…. Progress followed by backlash.”
Among the examples he cited: Emancipation followed by the KKK and Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 followed by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Richard Nixon’s election in 1968, leading to Nixon’s war on drugs in 1971 that disproportionately targeted and imprisoned young black men. The election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 followed by the Tea Party, the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision against the Voting Rights Act “ushering in a new era of voter suppression that all of us are living in right now,” and “the backlash was complete in 2016 with the election of … so-and-so, running in many way on a 5-year lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States of America, and so-and-so rode that lie to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Throughout the night, Jeffries spoke colloquially and made light of himself, joking twice about going through the whole alphabet, in a reference to the speech he gave on the House floor on the night Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy was elected Speaker of the House after 15 floor votes. One of those moments when Jeffries poked fun at himself Monday was after he described McCormick as a “voice for the voiceless, a defender for the disenfranchised, a powerful, profound, principled, purposeful public servant.”
He also mixed humor with profundity when he described the last of his backlash moments, this one following the progress of Joe Biden’s 2020 election as president.
Insurrection a backlash
“We have lived in some backlash moments ourselves, you know on the floor of House of Representatives,” Jeffries said. “The insurrection, that was a backlash moment.... I’ll never forget that day.”
He was the fifth ranking Democrat in the House then.
“On that fateful day Jan. 6, 2021, seated right next to me were Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn (the second and third ranking Democrats, respectively). Seated at the rostrum was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”
The loudspeaker sounds: “The mob has reached the Capitol,” Jeffries recounts the loudspeaker voice. “They are on the second floor. Be prepared to hit the ground and secure the gas masks that are under your seats.”
He pauses. “Now, I had been in Congress for four terms. And I had no idea there were gas masks.”
He continues, “A backlash moment. I knew this was a serious moment we were in. I see the speaker almost aggressively removed from the chamber… and then the security team comes up and they remove Steny Hoyer. And the security team comes up and they say, ‘Mr. Clyburn, sir, you have to leave now.’ My good friend, Katherine Clark, the number 4 Democrat at the time, she was off campus. I’m sitting there, the number 5 Democrat... And I’m waiting for someone to come and get me. Whataya know? They never came.”
“A backlash moment. Well, good thing I’m from Brooklyn…In the backlash moment, we have to be prepared to fight,” he says as the laughter shifts to resounding applause.
“The most important thing that happened that night was not that we were run off the floor but that we came back to the Capitol.”
Enough good folks, we hope, to overcome the rough ones.