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When Sonnie Johnson broke into her spoken word poem, A Moment of Clarity, about her journey from the projects in Richmond, Va. — the daughter of a biological mother addicted to crack and an alcoholic father — to her job today as a tea party activist and founder of the website Change the Game, it was clear this was a different kind of conservative panel.

We are dying,” she cried out.

Whether we kill our babies in the womb
Or follow drugs to the tomb
Or lay unemployed in our mother’s living room.
Whether we pull triggers and kill our own reflection
Or use the haves and have nots in our selection.
Or destroy the lives of others due to our own depression.

Johnson described her journey to conservatism, which came partially through the stark capitalism she found in the words of artists like Jay Z and 50 Cent, and partially through a calling from God. She, and the six other panelists at the event, explained why they believe conservatism, and by extension the Republican Party, can lift urban communities through a return to constitutional principles and entrepreneurism.

Listening to her, and the other speakers, it struck me how important their voices will be moving forward if the conservative movement — and by extension the Republican Party — is going to expand and succeed.

The theme of the first panel at the event, which was held on Oct. 11 at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, was “Today’s Civil Rights Issues: Crime, Guns and Race.” C-SPAN filmed the event and will broadcast the proceedings some time after the November elections.

The event was organized by Regina Roundtree, president and founder of Connecticut Black Republicans and Conservatives (www.CBRAC.org). She is also a paid consultant for gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley.

The panelists were all luminaries in the Black conservative world. From professors to clergy to a former ambassador to the United Nations, each of them took a different route to their place in the conservative movement.

And that, said Roundtree, was something she wanted to help people understand — that conservatives don’t all look and sound the same.

“I wanted the world to see how beautiful our community is, and how diverse we are,” she said. “I believe that this was an opportunity to share with the world, to share with you, the complexities and the layers of our community.”

Ken Blackwell — a professor, former mayor of Cincinnati, former ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, and an NRA board member — spoke of the need to maintain the constitutional rights of people living in urban communities, who, he argued, have a right to protect themselves as much as anyone living in rural areas, where gun laws are often more relaxed.

Alongside Blackwell sat Nicholas Johnson, a law professor at Fordham University and author of Negroes and the Gun. The book describes the tradition of Black Americans protecting themselves with guns after the Civil War and throughout the civil rights movement. Even the “non-violent” leaders of the movement, like the Rev. Martin Luther King, kept guns close by so they could protect themselves and their families.

Also on the panel were Bishop Garland Hunt, and the Rev. Dean Nelson, co-founder of the Frederick Douglass Foundation.

The panel did address the “misuse” of weapons. That comes from lawlessness, and broken families, said Hunt, who was on Georgia’s parole board and also runs a prison ministry. We need to teach value for life, and the responsible use of weapons, he said.

All of the panelists described a need to decriminalize American society. With every new regulation and law passed by conservative and liberal legislatures alike, another chance to become a criminal is born.

That’s true with gun crimes as well — if a felon is found near a gun, not just in possession of a gun, they can be sent back to jail or charged with a new crime.

Let’s teach responsibility instead of criminality, the panelists said. We don’t need a new law for every problem.

It was clear from what the panelists said that the Republican Party is not presently doing enough to attract Black voters and thinkers.

Wayne Dupree, who was on the Social Media and Messaging panel with Sonnie Johnson, said he was tired of the Republican National Committee making promises that weren’t kept.

“Every two years after the election, they say they are going to do something, and it doesn’t happen,” he said.

The party needs to build a presence in Black communities by finding a space and staying there, he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Richard Ivory, founder of HipHopRepublican.com, who said that the Republican Party still has a long way to go to attract minority voters and urban voters, but that reaching out is essential for the party to survive.

“The reason I’m so passionate about what I’m doing is because I believe the only way the party will get where it needs to be, as it tries to find its way, is with cities and minorities,” he said. “Cities and minorities will make the Republican Party more competitive, and will make the party a strong party in the future. And I think it will benefit the African American community and other minority communities to have another party to consider.”

Roundtree is trying to build the bridge between urban minority communities and Republicans in Connecticut, but said the GOP needs to be in it for the long-term.

In the coming months, she plans to set up a non-profit research and education foundation devoted to addressing the issues facing cities, and said she will come to those issues from a conservative viewpoint, as well as a minority viewpoint.

Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.

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