“I’m here to give you a different kind of food, and it’s the kind you must share with others,” said Rick Jennings II as he began his speech in the Yuba College Theatre February 20. Jennings was the keynote speaker at this year’s Black History Week, which also included poetry events, dances, and a discussion on unity.Jennings, who is the director of the Center for Fathers and Families, which is based in Sacramento, President of Sacramento City Unified School Board, and former Oakland Raider, thrilled the small but enthusiastic crowd that was present.
Jennings, who delivered a speech entitled “The Journey is Not Over,” did away with using the microphone and came close to the audience, creating an intimate atmosphere. In a voice brimming with passion, Jennings took audience members on a journey into a past filled with dark moments as well as uplifting ones that gave African-Americans the will to fight for freedom and basic human rights.
Jennings’ vivid descriptions of the bitter treatment of slaves, a treatment that left one in four slaves dead on the cargo ships, held the audience transfixed.
“Many jumped into the sea to their deaths, which they believed allowed their souls to return to Africa,” added Jennings. Audience members nodded and sighed.
For a moment, Jennings paused collecting his emotions, and then he pointed to a distinguished, elderly African-American man sitting in the back row, surprising everyone.
“Every time I look at this young man, I just hope I can be as good looking when I get there. The man is in good shape; he looks good. And by the way, the average age life span for African-American men is 68,” said Jennings smiling.
Jennings brought home the point effectively, that many Black men have severe health problems and that tracing their roots, especially in the area of health histories, can save their lives.The ex-football player then asked those in attendance if they felt if racism has been eliminated from this world?
A resounding “No,” was shouted back by many. “I’m president of Sacramento City Unified school district which has about 5400 students. Our lowest achieving students are African-Americans. Our highest expelled students are African-Americans.” Jennings went on to say that there are more men of African-American descent in prison across America than there are in college.
Jennings also presented a timeline of legislative decisions by the Supreme Court that impacted African-Americans.
The decision in 1896, which ruled “separate but equal,” legalized segregation and doomed Blacks to inferior conditions, such as in schools and in public transportation, which required Blacks to sit in the back. Jennings added that sometimes blacks were required to pay their money at the front of the bus, whereupon they would have to get off and race to the rear entry of the bus and try to enter before the bus took off.
Jennings also offered an inspiring biography of Rosa Parks and her contributions to civil rights, culminating in her refusal in l955 to sit in the back of the bus. This act of defiance set off a chain of events that led to the civil rights movement of the l960s. While the audience clapped for Parks’ heroic stand, a young African-American woman said in a low voice that Parks was her grand aunt. Jennings shouted to her to stand up and “say it loudly and proudly!”
The Sacramento area educator brought his speech to a close by offering his most scalding commentary. “There is no reason that Black people don’t unite on this campus in support of an event like this. I encourage you to speak up. Think about our ancestors who sacrificed their lives and ask yourself why you shouldn’t do the same thing,” he said.
Jennings then gestured upward and said with a huge smile, “The lessons I taught you today, my grandmother taught me long ago.”Sheila White-Daniels, who is the adviser to the Black Student Union organization at Yuba College, was deeply impacted by Jennings and echoed many of his views.
“I had told my staff today that I was going to give up advising the Black Student Union after 13 years,” said Daniels in an emotional tone, “mainly because I’ve never seen such apathetic and disheartening attitudes. Every day I have to go to the cafeteria and pull students to a meeting. Your ancestors suffered, and there is a trail of bones from West Africa to this country.”
“Students have to begin talking to other students,” Daniels warned.