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August 1, 2023

Rep. Pressley Delivers Keynote at NAACP’s Juanita Mitchell Gala

“Let this moment in Boston be the moment where we recommit to being bold and unapologetic in the pursuit of justice.”

“Every person gathered here tonight has an essential role to play in our shared movement.”

Audio (YouTube)

BOSTON — Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) delivered the keynote address at the NAACP’s Juanita Jackson Mitchell Youth Awards. In her remarks, Rep. Pressley discussed the central role that young people have played in the ongoing civil rights movement and urged the audience to recommit to being bold and unapologetic in the pursuit of justice.

A full transcript of Rep. Pressley’s remarks is available below and audio of the speech is available here.

Transcript: Ayanna Pressley Delivers Keynote at NAACP’s Juanita Mitchell Gala
Boston, MA
July 31, 2023

Good evening NAACP family!

I’m gonna need y’all to bring the energy up. You’re here for the Black Met Gala, all shades of Blackness.

Personally, I have a preference for chocolate, which is why I’m here with that fine man right there, my husband, the Black Diamond. 

What can I say, family. They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

If the song “You Won’t Break My Soul” was a people. 

Let me tell you, this weekend has been good for my soul.

I didn’t know how much I needed this until we were in it.

This convention has been a family meeting, a revival, a strategy session, and a homecoming all in one. And we’ve looked damn good while doing it.

And while this convention has already been filled with so many moments of brilliance and meaningful conversations, tonight is what I have been looking forward to the most.

The youth of the NAACP, the youth of this movement in every great movement throughout history, the youth have led in strategy and in sweat equity.

And the Youth and College Division of the NAACP has always been the heart of this movement. 

Now we look back in order to look forward and as we invoke those powerful testimonials of the organizers that put their bodies on the line to claim the ballot and advance our civil rights struggle.

Now, we find ourselves at a critical inflection point as a country, where there are those that are working daily to erase our Black history, to not regard our Black history as American history. Who don’t want to tell our whole history.

Now, while we’re in the midst of that, it is important within our own movement, especially, that we tell our whole stories. 

You see, our people and our predecessors aren’t black and white or some sort of static image. Our people and our predecessors were real, in color, multi-dimensional and dynamic. 

People who lived and loved, who grappled with organizing infrastructure and well-intended cautionary tales. They failed and struggled, got it wrong and got it right.

Now while our NAACP movement has always benefitted from a deeply intergenerational and intersectional coalition, let us not revise our own history or over simplify the narrative.

Because the truth of the matter is there is beauty in the discord. There is beauty in the deliberation. There is beauty in the tension.

Progress in pursuit of justice is about the will of the people. But progress rarely comes from a consensus position.

The default status quo can often feel safer, deeply unjust but familiar.

Some would say, better the broken normal than the unknown change that some would caution.

The truth of the matter is, for every freedom rider who got on a bus, there was a parent telling them to stay home.

For every student at that Woolworths counter, who sat there to desegregate it, there was a professor telling them to study legal texts, not challenge the law.

For every Black woman who put their name on the ballot, there was a loving elder telling her to wait her turn.

Now, I would never give short shrift to the counsel of our elders and our ancestors. They cover us, they guide us and we manifest their wildest dreams.

But recently I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a better ancestor than descendent.

What it means to prioritize justice for our grandbabies over praise from our grandparents.

To respectfully set aside the [aspersions] that our tactical pursuit of justice might just be—young folk I’m sure you’ve been told this—you want too much, you’re moving too fast, you’re being too reckless. 

Let’s tell it like it is: Martin was reviled by the public. Medgar was vilified. Juanita was urged to stay at home. Claudette was trash talked. And John was told to step aside.

In real time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Juanita Mitchell, Claudette Colvin, John Lewis, they were not lauded or celebrated. 

Their likeness wasn’t made into a postage stamp.

Yet still, they persisted. Because in the midst of daily indignities, police brutality, policy violence that threatened and claimed the lives of our people, they could see to the other side.

Now, to find our way through nightmares we have to speak about our dreams. 

I’m sure you all have heard the story of the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, you know they did not want Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak. And when he did speak, they had approved a different speech. 

But when he got up there and Mahalia said, “Martin tell them about the dream,” but rather than sit in that moment, in the deficit of our struggles, he chose to enumerate and give us a dream. 

So even in the midst of the nightmare we find ourselves in, we have to speak about our dreams, and we have to do it in vivid detail. 

We have to set course, like Harriet Tubman did, towards a North Star that pushes the bounds of conventional wisdom and well-intended advice. 

We have to speak in vibrant detail about a vision for a truly just America.

In a truly just America, every person has a loving and safe home to call their own.

In a truly just America, Black mamas welcome their babies surrounded by support and excellent care.

In a truly just America, Black trans lives matter. 

In a truly just America, we can drink the water and breathe the air.

In a truly just America, abortion care is treated as the routine medical care that it is and readily accessible to anyone who seeks it.

In a truly just America, Black boy joy is a rite of passage. 

In a truly just America, our Black men grow old in community, with dignity.

In a truly just America, our legal system is defined by healing and repair not profits and family separation.

In a truly just America, voting is easier than ordering a cup of coffee.

In a truly just America, Black folks can retire because I cannot believe our ancestors meant for us to labor until we die. 

In a truly just America, every child attends a school that reflects back to them their brilliance and potential.

In a truly just America, student debt does not exist.

Let me repeat that, one more time, family—in a truly just America, student debt does not exist.

In a truly just America, Black folks get their reparations.

In a truly just America, we give a damn about folks’ lives and not just their labor.

To each of you gathered here tonight, let me say, I don’t know if we will be lauded in the pages of the history books or if we’ll be relegated to a footnote. 

But what matters is our lasting impact. Just like in the early chapters of the civil rights movement, there are many names recorded in history, but many more, millions more, nameless and faceless.

Young and old, athletes and artists, journalists, domestics and doctors, nameless and faceless, but who send up a prayer, who sang a freedom song, who packed a lunch, who marched a march, who vaselined an elbow or a knee, who laid their body on the line or sang a freedom song. 

So I don’t know what our place will be in the telling of history.

But as NAACP movement, our impact is undeniable.

Let this moment in Boston be the moment where we recommit to being bold and unapologetic in the pursuit of justice. 

For every person gathered here tonight has an essential role to play in our shared movement. 

Now I can call on each of you, I’m challenging you in this moment, to be unrelenting and persistent. 

To stay woke, stay Black and vigilant.

To be as bold and radical, and when I say radical, I’m referencing the definition of Angela Y. Davis, to get at the root of things.

There are efforts, draconian and dangerous and an emboldened white supremacy—but we came here tonight for the Black Met Gala to celebrate all shades of Blackness—that seek to deny you your Blackness. 

But I’m asking you to stand and be unapologetic in your Blackness. 

Be unapologetic in the radical work of the NAACP. 

But I’m also going to ask you to hold comparable space, while doing that radical work, to hold space for your radical healing and your radical joy. 

That you don’t lost sight of your own humanity. 

For living joyfully and freely is also an act of resistance. 

To quote the great poets Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar, “Freedom, freedom where are you. I need freedom too. I bring change all by myself.”

I know that’s right.

We find ourselves in deeply consequential times, but the NAACP Youth and College Division know that in the midst of these consequential times, I have never been more hopeful, and you are the reason why. 

Family, I love you. I love you so much. 

I love you, and I thank you.

And to my NAACP family here in the Massachusetts 7th, it is a humbling honor to be more than a Congresswoman, but to truly be your Representative. 

Sent to Washington with a mandate by the people, where I can sit at the policy and decision-making tables, I can take up space in the corridors of power, I can take up space as an unapologetically Black, bald Black woman.

When Shirley Chisholm was asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said she did not want to be remembered as the first Black woman to serve in the House of Representatives, nor did she want to be remembered as the first Black woman to pursue the U.S. presidency. 

She simply wanted to be remembered as a Black woman who dared to be herself.

Massachusetts, thank you for giving me permission to dare to be myself.

And to every young person here, what I want for all of you is that you can do as I am: show up in the world fully, authentically, and unapologetically, as your beautiful, brilliant, Black selves.