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Commentary: My Fight for Democracy Is Guided by the NAACP’s Enduring Legacy

Congresswoman Barbara Lee | Special to California Black Media Partners

In the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, a trailblazer in the founding of the NAACP, “The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defense — else what shall save us from a second slavery? Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek — the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire.”

These profound sentiments have been a guiding force throughout my journey, one that has taken me from an elected official in the California State Legislature to a member of Congress proudly representing the 12th Congressional District, to my current candidacy for the U.S. Senate. The NAACP’s commitment to justice and equality has been a constant influence, shaping my perspective on democracy and inspiring me to champion these principles at every stage of my career.

Born and raised in El Paso, Texas, the roots of my connection to the NAACP run deep. My late mother, Mildred Parish Massey, was a trailblazer herself, named as one of the first 12 students in the NAACP lawsuit to integrate Texas Western College, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso. My grandfather W.C. Parish was the first African American letter carrier in El Paso. He spoke fluent Spanish in order to better serve his community and was an active member of the NAACP.

Even as my family moved to the seemingly progressive San Fernando Valley in Southern California, the specter of racism persisted. High school, supposed to be a time of joy and growth, became a battleground for fairness. Seeking to become a cheerleader, I encountered an unfair selection process that excluded Black and Brown girls. Here, the NAACP once again intervened, successfully advocating for a policy change, shifting from a selection process to an election. Winning that election at the age of 15 marked my first tangible encounter with the transformative power of democracy. It was a victory not just for Black girls but for all, breaking down barriers and fostering inclusivity.

Just as my former intern and a former student in the Oakland branch of the NAACP’s ACT-SO program, Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones, continues to lift up the legacy of the NAACP, so do many young people. They stand up, make their voices heard, register to vote, run for office, and work to secure our planet for the next generation. The NAACP’s legacy lives on, inspiring a new generation to carry the torch of justice, equality, and democratic values forward.

The documentary, “Barbara Lee Speaks for Me,” created by filmmaker Abby Ginzberg, became an unexpected testament to my journey. Initially hesitant to participate due to my ceaseless commitment to serving constituents, Californians, and our planet, the documentary went on to win multiple awards, including the NAACP’s Best Documentary Film in 2022.

Our democracy is fragile. The January 6th attempted coup of our government threatened the peaceful transfer of power. We withstood this test and prevailed, but let me tell you how I personally experienced that day where five people died and many more were injured, including 138 Capitol Police Officers. Our brave officers fought the protestors to save lives. This included Black officers who were called the “N” word, spat upon, and treated in a manner that was bigoted, racist, and disgusting. Yet they stood up and fought to save our democracy.

I was sitting in the House Chambers, when we barely escaped. We went to the undisclosed location, in the midst of COVID, where many Republicans refused to wear a mask and several contracted this illness. Some Republicans, who would later vote against certifying the election of President Joe Biden, had the nerve to pray out loud. In the early morning, we returned to the Capitol when told it was safe. I was determined to stay until the end to witness the peaceful transfer of power. Tensions were high. Two members, a Republican and a Democratic Congressional Black Caucus member, almost threw hands and had to be restrained. The good news is–though the peaceful transfer of power was almost thwarted–our democracy survived. The House voted to certify Joe Biden as President and Kamala Harris, the first African American, the first Indian American, first woman—and yes—the first from Oakland, as our Vice President.

The trauma of that day was very real. That following weekend, I decided to stay in Washington, DC. I collect writing pens as a hobby and have a wonderful collection of about 400. To try and process my trauma, I wrote my name 400 times using my pens while listening to songs of empowerment. I found comfort in the music of Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, and Beyoncé. I was inspired and uplifted. Our community is accustomed to finding comfort in moments of extreme trauma. I knew I had to do more.

When the NAACP approached me to be a plaintiff in their lawsuit holding Donald Trump, the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys, and Rudy Giuliani accountable for the attempted overthrow of our democracy, I enthusiastically said “YES!” Mind you, this was before the January 6th Committee had been formed. My colleague Congressman Bennie Thompson was initially the lead plaintiff, but once he became Chair of the January 6th committee, I was asked to take over.

In a pivotal moment, a federal appeals court decision now allows civil lawsuits against Donald Trump related to the Capitol riot — a significant step in upholding our freedoms. This decision represents a victory for accountability and a testament to the robustness of our democratic institutions. Simultaneously, the American Women Quarters Program, a result of my legislation, will feature Ida B. Wells on quarters in 2025—a fitting tribute to one of the founders of the NAACP and a pioneering journalist and anti-lynching activist.

As we navigate these challenges, the NAACP continues to be my North Star and, as a woman of faith, I say God always steps in right on time in my life, ordering my steps in his ways. I am grateful for the NAACP and grateful for the impact it’s had on all our lives.

About the Author

Congresswoman Barbara Lee has been representing California’s 12th District (formerly 13th) since 1998. She is the highest ranking African American woman appointed to Democratic Leadership, serving as Co-Chair of the Policy and Steering Committee. She also serves on the Budget Committee and the powerful Appropriations Committee, which oversees all federal government spending.

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