In a special panel hosted at the White House and moderated by ESSENCE editor Vanessa K. De Luca, female civil rights leaders gathered to discuss the events that continue to shape Black history

Taylor Lewis
Feb, 20, 2015

[Editor's Note: Video begins at 28-minute mark.]

Earlier today, a group of multigenerational women gathered in the White House. These women have dedicated their time, their careers, their lives to the ongoing fight for racial equality and justice. And in a very special White House panel, opened by First Lady Michelle Obama and moderated by ESSENCE editor Vanessa K. De Luca, these women shared their own struggles and offered advice to the world-changers of tomorrow.

In her opening remarks, the First Lady spoke on the important of educating our younger generation. 

“I believe that education is the single most important civil rights issues that we face today,” she said. “Because in the end, if we really want to solve issues like mass incarceration, poverty, racial profiling, voting rights and the kinds of challenges that shocked so many of us over the past year, then we simply cannot afford to miss out on the potential of even one young person. We cannot allow even one more young person to fall through the cracks.”

Coming from all different walks of life, the panelists each had something unique to offer the conversation. From Carlotta Walls LaNier, who was the youngest Little Rock Nine student to integrate Central High School in 1957, to Janaye Ingram, the National Executive Director of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, each woman shared her experiences and her advice for the leaders of tomorrow.

Take a look below at some of the most powerful, formative quotes from the conversation, and watch a recording of the panel above.

Carlotta Walls LaNier, youngest member of the Little Rock Nine: “My home was bombed during that period. When the home was bombed, I was 15, and my family, my sisters, my mother and I were there. My father was at his father’s place trying to work. He was considered by the police and the FBI as possibly bombing his own home with his family in it. Unfortunately, my closest friend up the street spent two years of a five-year sentence for bombing our home, which we know he did not do. We talk about incarceration of our young men today. This thing continues. It was long before then.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, first Black woman to enroll at the University of Georgia: “That phrase ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? Our segregated communities protected us and taught us that when they couldn’t—by law—give us first class citizenship, they gave us a first-class sense of ourselves.”

Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.: “Seventy-five percent of African-American girls think that they will become leaders, and 58 percent think of themselves as leaders. In between that time that little Black girls believe they’re leaders and what they ultimately become, what happens in that period? And that’s the part for which we bear a great deal of responsibility.”

Chanelle Hardy, Executive Director of the National Urban League Washington: “What I always find to be challenging and important is there’s a lot of energy. The thing that always brings us back together is those moments of violence that seem to be motivated by our race, and that’s when no matter what our class or our socio-economic status, we become really Black. We’re all Black around Black Lives Matter because we all have children that we’re worried about.”

Janaye Ingram, National Executive Director of the National Action Network: “Even though the lines aren’t there of Black and White, a lot of the tactics and things that are happening are very much the same [as the days of Dr. Martin Luther King].”

Hunter-Gault: “There would be no civil rights movement in America without the women who were the backbone of the struggle. They were taught that they were not in the leadership, and even then, they were doing everything.”

Ifill: “When we think about Ferguson and we think about all of the police killing issues and the way at which this country has been roiled by these events, I think it’s really two things we have to be looking at: Young people have to know the history, but we also have to know their reality.”

Hunter-Gault: “We’ve got to get our Black history every day into our classrooms all over this country so that when our young people are moved to take action, they know that they can make a different because it has happened before. “

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, congresswoman for the District of Columbia: “If we want to really show our appreciation for what this panel has done through the generations, I think what we will do is to take from them the inspiration, to move forward collectively, to make ourselves a part of the continuing movement for change, and to say to them, ‘Just as you have given us so much, this afternoon, we promise you, in return, we will give you our continuing commitment to keep pressing for change until every American has equal rights under the law and in fact.”

Ifill: “An old civil rights activist once told me racism is a shape-shifter. You have to adjust yourself to it.”

Ingram: “Sometimes, you have to be the only one standing if you really want to see something happen.”