Leaders of seven legacy civil rights organizations — including four women — met with President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday to push him to uphold his commitment to addressing racial equity as a priority of his administration. Vice President-elect Harris and incoming senior advisor Cedric Richmond joined Biden at the meeting.
Black voters were central to Biden’s primary nomination and key to his general election victory. Black leaders also pushed for Biden to nominate a Black woman to be his vice president, and he ultimately made the historic pick of Harris, who will become the first woman and person of color to serve in the office when the two are sworn in next month.
Several leaders characterized the meeting — which was held virtually and scheduled for an hour, but which lasted nearly two according to the attendees — as productive.
Melanie Campbell, head of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said Biden told the group that “he expects to appoint several more African Americans” to high-level cabinet positions, including women.
During the meeting, news broke of Biden’s reported intent to nominate Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge as the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Several Black leaders and lawmakers had pushed for Fudge to be named Agriculture Secretary. Biden is reportedly set to select Tom Vilsack, who held the position under President Barack Obama, to return to the role.
Campbell was among more than 1,000 women who signed a letter sent to the incoming administration on Monday calling for Fudge to lead the Department of Agriculture, but said Tuesday that Fudge’s experience, including as mayor of a Cleveland suburb, qualifies her for a number of roles.
“She brings so much to this administration,” said Campbell, who added that she did not see the HUD appointment as a consolation prize, given the need to address issues including housing inequality and the racial wealth gap.
Campbell said concerns were raised in the meeting about news that Vilsack is a frontrunner to reprise the role. Vilsack fired former USDA Georgia state director Shirley Sherrod in 2010 after a controversy over a speech she gave that was taken out of context by Breitbart News. Vilsack later apologized for the firing.
“It was really disrespectful what happened with that situation,” said Campbell. “He needed to rectify that, and I can’t say that it was fully done. I think there’s so many other people, including Congresswoman Fudge, who would’ve been a better choice.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the Legal Defense Fund, said she stressed the need for Biden to put the weight of his office behind voting rights legislation and to explore how he could use executive orders to enforce what Congress will not. Ifill also said she is looking for an attorney general nominee with a demonstrated record on criminal justice and civil rights, and she appealed to Biden as a former public defender to encourage him to support judges with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences.
Ifill said she is not necessarily disappointed at the lack of Black women being mentioned to lead the Justice Department but is more focused on the qualities needed for the role.
“I do think it needs to be someone who knows that building, who can launch pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments and prisons, look at the system of immigration justices, look at hate crimes and come up with a new paradigm for reporting,” said Ifill. “There are Black women who are qualified, I don’t know whether they are available or willing.”
Ifill said she is determined that the head of the civil rights division be an actual civil rights lawyer with a career commitment to the issue. Asked whether the role is one she is interested in, she declined to directly answer, but said that while she would consider an offer “from any government I believe in to serve.” She added, “I believe that my voice has value and I treasure the ability to use my voice in an uncompromised way.”
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration will be critical to addressing the “unfinished business” of racial justice exposed by this year’s pandemic and racial reckoning.
“This meeting was intended to make clear that racial justice must be at the center of the Biden-Harris administration’s approach to confronting the profound problems we face and was intended to ensure that Black people will be listened to and that this administration will respect our dignity and humanity,” Clarke said.
She added that the attorney general nominee must have “a clear and bold record on civil rights and racial justice” and said that Senate confirmability as a measuring stick for the person who occupies this central role is “deeply troubling and unacceptable.”
Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the Justice Department’s work has the potential to be transformative and said the attorney general nominee should be someone who “will begin to rebuild the morale of the department, respect the rule of law and democratic norms.” She added that voting rights need to be addressed at the federal level and that civil rights enforcement across the administration has taken “a broad and deep hit” across agencies in the past four years and needs to be “revived.”
Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, who was also in attendance at the meeting, and Campbell both endorsed Ifill, Clarke and Gupta — who previously served as acting assistant attorney general and head of the civil rights division under President Barack Obama — as potential candidates for attorney general.
Morial said the issue of who could potentially replace Harris in the Senate did not come up in the discussion. Harris is the lone Black woman in the Senate and only the second Black woman to serve, and Black women leaders have called for California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill her seat with a Black woman.
Biden has announced Linda Thomas-Greenfield as nominee for United Nations ambassador, retired General Lloyd Austin as Defense Secretary nominee and Wally Adeyemo as deputy Treasury Secretary nominee as among those making up an increasingly diverse list of picks.