“The white folk tell everybody what to think – except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…”
– Ralph Ellison,”Invisible Man”
(Shmoop Editorial Team)
(Pictured above, in 1868, are the first black Members of Congress, elected after the passage of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing the right to vote.)
Never Give Up The Fight!
The late, great newspaper man and founder of the Washington Informer, Dr. Calvin Rolark, so often said, “No one can save us, for us, but us. If it is to be, its up to me.” Throughout my time here on this earth, I have not only believed those words, I have lived them. In doing so, I would like to think that I have “let my life to do the singing”, in service to God and all humanity. In fact, as the longest serving member and dean of the Florida Delegation to the United States House of Representatives, I know what it’s like to be “buffeted to and fro” by the vicissitudes of life and winds of time, and yet come out standing. I know, because I am a survivor.
As a grade school student at Crooms Academy in Sanford, Florida, we were taught and expected to recite each day the words to the poem, “It Couldn’t Be Done”, penned a century ago by journalist Edgar Albert Guest, who wrote:
“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he, with a chuckle replied,
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing, as he tackled the thing,
That couldn’t be done, and he did it!”
For more than eighty years, there have been those who have told me that the hopes and dreams I have had not only for myself, but also for oppressed people everywhere, just simply “couldn’t be done”. And, for more than eighty years, I have refused to believe them.
In 1936, the year I was born, my life was one that was marked for infinite possibilities, in spite of a world that was quick to remind me that the successes I have experienced, having started out a poor black kid from a segregated town, were simply impossible to achieve. But less than one month before my birth, however, Olympian Jesse Owens obliterated the notion, once again, that African-American males were incapable of achieving greatness; shattering Adolph Hitler’s “master race” theory when he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. In doing so, Owens paved the way for young boys like me to believe that anything was possible when you work hard and ignore your critics–popular opinion be damned!
As an individual who has learned to not take “no” as a first answer, I have been defying the odds and shattering expectations all of my life. Born at home, in a little house in Altamonte Springs, Florida, I am the only child of the late Julius and Mildred Hastings, my wonderful parents, who instilled within me the drive to reach my full potential. As domestic workers, they labored day and night, cleaning other people’s homes to provide one for me, while continuing to impress upon me the belief that the extent to which I could dream was my only limitation. To that end, as the great-grandson of enslaved Africans, I understand what its like to be picked on and counted out.
Nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, I was the first black Floridian appointed as a United States District Court judge in America. After several years on the bench, I was falsely accused of crimes in which I have steadfastly maintained my innocence, and placed on trial. And I emerged victorious! But that victory would be short lived, however, having “fought the law” and won. In fact, despite having been found not guilty on all charges and exonerated of wrongdoing by a jury of my peers, I was impeached anyway and removed from the federal bench in 1989 by the very same body that had approved my nomination just ten years previously. But that’s not how my story ends…
After having endured what I thought was the fight of my life, one that would cost me not only my job, but millions of dollars in legal fees, I picked myself up and dusted myself off; determined that I would not let a system that mistreated me to do the same thing to someone else. And so I ran for office–and I lost. In fact, I have run and lost eight times. EIGHT TIMES! But in defeat, however, I was ever mindful of the fact that “a setback is a set-up for a comeback” and I never gave up on my dreams and a belief in the promise of a better tomorrow. (And you ought not give up on your dreams either)! For it was during those difficult days that I would hearken back to the lessons taught to me by my parents, who would remind me that it didn’t matter how often I got knocked down, I still owed it to myself, and to those who came before me, to get back up again. And so I did…
In 1992, after the results of the 1990 U.S. Census led to the apportionment of additional congressional seats to Florida, and offered the possibility of an African-American being elected to Congress, I saw another opportunity to serve my community while simultaneously fulfilling my purpose and so I ran—again—and won. And I haven’t lost since! In fact, as the first black congressman elected from Florida in 116 years, having only been preceded by the Honorable Josiah T. Walls who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1871-1876, I have served in Congress with the firm realization that I am merely a caretaker for a seat that belongs to the people of my great state. Yet, through it all, I have been able to do so, understanding that I stand on the shoulders of those who paid the ultimate price, while reaching back to prepare those who will take the mantle of leadership and carry the torch that I have been privileged to hold aloft, of advocacy, action and service above self.
In 1994, having just completed my first term in Congress, I received a letter from a student in my district seeking an internship opportunity in our Washington, DC Office. The young man, Elvin Dowling, the author of this most important work and a community leader in his own right, was not unknown to me, having been previously recognized by the local newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, for his community service efforts. As such, giving him an opportunity to serve alongside me was an easy decision; one that would result in a longstanding mentoring relationship for a quarter-century. In fact, since that time, Elvin has stood with me, and those of us in the struggle for civil rights and social justice, fighting for the voiceless and the “least of these” on the issues that matter most to those in need.
(Congressman Alcee L. Hastings and Author Elvin J. Dowling, pictured at the Congressman’s Office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, circa 1994.)
As one of my trusted aides, Elvin worked hard to help me understand the complexities facing young men of color in this country; effectively articulating their concerns in a way that facilitated my better appreciation of the impact of public policy on younger generations. As the youngest chief of staff to one of our nation’s oldest and most historic civil rights organizations, the National Urban League, Elvin’s comprehensive understanding of the state of Black America has uniquely positioned him to articulate the challenges African-American men face today, both within this book and throughout the world. As an author and master communicator, Elvin’s ability to tell a story, particularly one that deserves to be heard, will leave each of us more hopeful and generations more enlightened, with each turn of phrase. More importantly, however, as a survivor like me, having lost siblings and family members to inner city violence, Elvin Dowling’s understanding of what it means to be a successful black man in an often-hostile country, lends greater credence to his ability to articulate the crucial messages that resonate throughout this book.
Steve Goodier, author of “One Minute Can Save a Life”, once said: “My scars remind me that I did, indeed, survive my deepest wounds. That, in itself, is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.” I agree… and understand. Today, as I now face the twilight of a remarkable journey that, I would like to believe, has made a mark on the world that can never be erased, I do so, knowing that the future of our nation—and our people—is hopeful; should we choose to rise to the challenge and fight for America’s future.
For until the day comes when minorities in this country are no longer denied the things that others take for granted, the struggle must continue. Until we live in a nation that celebrates our diversity and does not demonize it, the fight must go on. And until black men are no longer invisible in this, the most prosperous nation in history, change cannot wait. Like Jesse Owens in 1936, I am heartened to know that a new generation of leaders, like my friend Elvin Dowling, will pick up the baton and run the race for such a time as this. As such, I urge you to give this book the attention it deserves, as I am confident that you will be informed and inspired by the words and ideas of this powerful and anointed servant of all mankind.
Yours In the Struggle,
Alcee L. Hastings
Member of Congress
(Alcee L. Hastings, Sr.: Judge & Statesman)
Shmoop Editorial Team. “Invisible Man Race Quotes Page 6.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 8 Sep. 2019.