Letter to Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah Cummings

By Ralph Nader | July 7, 2008 | 8:30 PM EDT

July 13, 2004

Congressman Elijah Cummings
Chair-Congressional Black Caucus
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Congressman Cummings:

Your invitation to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus came to my attention from the media well before it was received in the mail. You will recall that I called you to say that, if the media reports were accurate about the CBC wanting to meet in order to demand withdrawal, that it would not warrant getting together. You assured me that though you could not guarantee what the members would say, you were the moderator and would control the meeting so that other important topics could be discussed. Fair enough.

I arrived during a torrential rain storm a little late which did not deter a friendly statement by Congressman John Conyers, who expressed his agreement with all our groups he has worked with in the past, yet added his reservations about the Nader/Camejo candidacy. It was downhill after that, with an increasing crescendo, from one speaker to another, dismissing my respectful and deliberate disagreement with the approach that there is only one way to defeat George W. Bush (by a Party that has been losing local, state, and federal elections to the worst of the Republican Party for the past ten years). At one point even you dropped your moderator mantel and urged withdrawal. At that point I said to myself-imagine not much more than one generation ago, whites were telling African-Americans not to run, not to vote. You see Congressman Cummings, do argue, oppose, and challenge vigorously, but unless you wish to tell someone not to speak, not to petition, not to assemble-which is exactly what running for office comprises-please don't tell anyone to withdraw and not run. Shades of the social justice third parties in the 19th century which moved the agendas critical to our country - can you imagine if the Abolitionist Party was told not to run against the pro-slavery Whigs and Democratic Parties in the 1840s! The U.S. Constitution does not prescribe or even describe a political
duopoly where voters are only allowed two choices and increasingly through redistricting etc. protect one dominant Party's incumbent.

Before the meeting, I had expected a discussion of subject matter ranging from strategies to defeat Bush together, to how the spillover vote in Congress from Nader/Camejo could tip the scales in close races for the progressive candidates (note how close the swing election races were in 2002) and end Republican control of the House or Senate, to examining why other drives for justice have not been able to overcome the opposition of corporate forces, e.g., racial profiling, taboos such as the failed war on drugs, or the commercial exploitation of low income areas, environmental racism and cash-register politics. I also wished to discuss what Reverend Jesse Jackson told me, a few days earlier, that he did not think the Democratic Party was actively trying to register millions of African-American voters, or what Bishop Desmond Tutu replied when I asked him what he would want me to raise regarding U.S. foreign policy toward Africa, in any CBC meeting.

Instead, exclamations at the meeting descended into vituperative, (e.g., Congresswoman Kilpatrick's tawdry, anatomical comment yelled loud enough so the press could hear it outside) and ending with the obscene racist epithet repeated twice by Yale Law School alumnus Congressman Melvin Watt of North Carolina. One member of your Caucus called to apologize for the crudity of some of the members. I had expected an expression of regret or apology from Congressman Watt in the subsequent days after he had cooled down. After all there was absolutely no vocal or verbal provocation from me or from my associates, including Peter Miguel Camejo, to warrant such an outburst. In all my years of struggling for justice, especially for the deprived and downtrodden, has any legislator-white or black-used such language?

I do not like double standards, especially since our premise for interactions must be equality of respect that has no room, as I responded to Mr. Watt, for playing the race card. Therefore, just as African-Americans demanded an apology from Agriculture Secretary Earl Butts and Senator Trent Lott-prior to their resignation and demotion respectively-for their racist remarks, I expect that you and others in the Caucus will exert your moral persuasion and request an apology from Congressman Watt. Please consider this also my request for such an expression-a copy of which is being forwarded directly to Mr. Watt's office.

Attached are the exact words of Congressman Watt's loud remarks, as heard by all in the meeting room without anyone admonishing him. In fact, some members rather enjoyed what he said judging by their outward demeanor.

I hope to hear from you shortly.


Ralph Nader

cc: Congressman Melvin Watt