January 21, 2011 — When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Donna Brazile said her grandmother brought the family together to pray. She told them not to hate others, but to continue King's work for justice and equality.
Not long afterward, Brazile began volunteering – at the age of 9. She canvassed her New Orleans neighborhood, urging the adults to register to vote for a City Council candidate who had promised to build a playground nearby.
Brazile, now a political analyst who works for the Democratic National Committee, gave similar messages in her talk, "Reflections on King's Legacy: Women in Leadership," delivered to a full house in the auditorium of the University of Virginia's David and Mary Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture and Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. She encouraged everyone to continue King's work and to be politically active at the grassroots level.
What has inspired her the most about King was his "passion to act," she said. She urged the audience to put on the moral armor of King to help advance his work – not just maintain it – and to take action to make his dream a reality.
"He would be proud of us, but he would still push us, challenge us, and press us about working on the unfinished business of making a more perfect union for all citizens," she said.
Her visit was part of U.Va.'s commemoration of the civil rights leader. Events in the observance, "Community Celebration: Faith in the Future," which runs through Jan. 27, will include reminiscences about King's 1963 visit to U.Va., to be held on Jan. 25, and talks by well-known activists and scholars.
Brazile is vice chair of voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee and former chair of the DNC's Voting Rights Institute. She worked on every presidential campaign between 1976 and 2000.
"We live at a time when the country is yearning for new leadership to succeed in the new century, and women will be there," said Brazile, who served as campaign manager for former Vice President Al Gore, becoming the first African-American woman to manage a presidential campaign.
After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, some thought America was finally becoming a post-racial society, as if King's work were finished, but there are still too many people struggling, and women and minorities are still looking for a place at the political table, she said. "We might need to get out some folding chairs to add to that table."
She said the nation still has a ways to go before a woman could become president, because of the sexist barriers that still exist. Women candidates don't get enough support from men in politics, and women are still criticized for being emotional. She said she gets tired of hearing commentators talk about the clothes female politicians are wearing. Care of children and family also continues to be difficult to work out. Brazile said she had argued for Sarah Palin's right to run for office despite having young children.
Women often need to be pushed to run for office and once they're in the pipeline, they need to be well-supported, she said.
She told the audience not to be surprised at the strong backlash evident in the recent elections. The planks of the Democratic platform, including improving health care, expanding employment, building better schools and keeping people in their homes, are still worthwhile goals, she said. She also predicted that Nancy Pelosi, would go down in history as one of the most effective speakers of the House of Representatives because she brought Democrats together and pushed through important legislation.
Brazile reviewed women's activism in pushing for the right to vote and told the story of the late Tennessee Congressman Harry Burn, who changed his mind and cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of passing the 19th amendment, saying he listened to his mother. She had written him a telegram telling him to vote "yes."
King would not want us to forget that women led the way in the Civil Rights Movement, as well, especially Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, Brazile said. Although she never worked with King, she worked with his associates and with his wife, Coretta Scott King, lobbying President Reagan to make King's birthday a national holiday more than 30 years ago.
"We must believe that changes to realize the dream of equality are worth fighting for. We have to believe we can see beyond the barriers to create the beloved community that King described. It is available to all who answer the call to serve," she said.
Author of the best-selling memoir "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics," Brazile is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, a syndicated newspaper columnist for United Media, a columnist for Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine, and an on-air contributor to CNN and ABC, where she regularly appears on "This Week with Christiane Amanpour."