Kweisi Mfume, born Frizzel Gray in Baltimore, Maryland, represented that city in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1986 to 1996 and rose to become Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. On February 15, 1996, he stepped down to become President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mfume gave his first major address in that position on July 13, 1997 at the organization’s eighty-eighth convention which took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That address appears below.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
I know it’s been a long morning. But some of the nights that we suffer through are longer than this. I pray today that those of you who are here who are white will understand the indignity that some of us feel as a result of racism, discrimination and preconceived stereotypes. And we pray that you will be just as indignant. I pray that those of you who are here today, no matter how small your number, who are Hispanic or Latino, Native American or Asian, that you will further understand as we do the need to embrace the concept of coalition even when some in your number and some in our number choose to go their separate ways. And I pray that those of you who are here who are of African ancestry understand as we must the real need to get beyond blame, to get beyond excuse and to once again start doing for ourselves.
Twenty-nine years ago, after two weeks of rioting and civil unrest, the Kerner Commission, appointed by Lyndon Baines Johnson, warned in its report that our nation was moving towards “two societies-one black, one white, separate and unequal.” How cynical can one be? America has always been two societies. The master-slave ontology and the doctrine of white supremacy which pre-existed before the republic was founded have made and kept this nation of two societies. That was not where we were headed; that was regrettably where we were then, and in many respects, where we are now.
This nation did not become hypocritical on the matter of race beginning with I997, for to speak the truth, it was conceived in hypocrisy. Even before the republic was founded, it compromised the moral claim and the moral principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence and in the Preamble to the Constitution, and in all other documents that they issue to justify their revolution against tyranny, having subjected human beings, our ancestors, to a bondage of the flesh as well as a bondage of the spirit.
Everything that the founding fathers claimed for humanity in the name of morality, they contradicted in their attitude towards and in their treatment of the descendants of Africa and the native inhabitants of this land. They spoke with the voice of Jacob, but they moved with the hand of Esaw. The enslavement of the Negro, the extermination of the Indian, and the annexation of the Hispanic made the birth of the American Nation an a conception conceived in hypocrisy, dedicated. .. to the twisted proposition that white men were somehow superior to non-white men and therefore entitled to enslave them, oppress them, and destroy them.
The hypocrisy painted in our nation’s beginnings lingered on. It has formed and shaped the American character and the American conscientiousness on the issue of race and skin color. But NAACP, it is not so much the hypocrisy of the past that should concern us now as much as it is the hypocrisy of the present. We have grown in two short centuries from a band of impoverished colonies to become the strongest, the wealthiest, the most powerful, the most influential nation on the face of the Earth.
It is a national tragedy and a national disgrace that after 200 years of progress the goals of racial justice are receding, not advancing. After 200 years, where is the justice in health care when infant mortality rate, heart disease, hypertension, and other ailments continue to drive mortality and morbidity tables in our communities? After 200 years, where is the justice in education when the doors to our colleges and universities are being locked and closed in a concept that goes against the grain of equal opportunity, when some of our most promising students find themselves as nomads, wandering around with no place to go? After 200 years, where is the justice that we worked for and bled for, when a black assistant secretary of education, dancing to somebody else’s music, calls for an end of race-based scholarships, as if he got to where he was all by himself? After 200 years, where is economic justice when African-ancestored Americans, Asians and Latinos and Native Americans are condemned to the bottom of the pay scale and government abandons its commitment to affirmative action and employment and education?
No, that check that we read about, that check that was so articulately stated for all of us by Martin Luther King at a mall in Washington, the check that was to be for liberty and equality was drawn on a bank account whose funds had been withdrawn by a new congressional majority that speaks platitudes about doing better but persists in doing worse.
I would hope that word goes out to my former colleagues who were seated here that the bankrupt policies of the new federalism [are] spawning a national environment that encourages discrimination and repudiates opportunity. I wish they’d stayed a little longer so that they might understand what our position is. For we recognize as an organization that our charge has been renewed by an old plague in America, a plague that has resurfaced, Madam Chair, with great abandon-it is a national scourge of insensitivity and intolerance.
Whether it is the repugnant act of burning churches in the dark or desecrating synagogues, whether it is increased violence from malicious groups, bombing attacks on federal buildings, or demonstrations against immigrants simply because they happen to be black and brown and do not speak as we do, tolerance, once again, has become a dirty word. We’ve lost, as a nation, our ability to be tolerant in terms of one’s race, in terms of one’s religion, and in terms of one’s gender. We have created in many respects an ugly part of America that still loves too little and hates too much. Jim Crow, Sr., is dead, but Jim Crow Jr., is alive and well.
Hate crimes, hate radio, hate speech and hate groups are attempting to divide this nation as never before. In an era of smaller vision, rampant apathy, and celebrated mediocrity, we so desperately need those who will stand up and speak out against that which is wrong and to stand up and embrace that which IS right. We desperately need to mean it when we say that racism, sexism and anti-Semitism are wrong; to know as a matter of critical fact that black bigotry can be Just as cruel as white bigotry; [to] know in our heart of hearts that union bashing, gay bashing, and immigrant bashing deplete us as a nation. They don’t move us to some sort of golden heritage, some sort of golden era. Thus, our challenge is to accept the fact that the road less traveled, the road that all of you are on, the one that no one else wants to embark upon, the road less traveled, is in fact the road less certain, but it is the road that beckons us anyway. We know instinctively and without equivocation better than most in this country that we can’t quarantine bigotry; we can’t banish it to some hillside far removed from society. Prejudice is something that people learn, usually at an early age. In fact, it is the fear of something unusual, something different from ourselves that inspires those in our society who hate us to recognize that they are in the process of hating themselves, that fear locks them into a glass house of racial indifference.
We don’t want any special privileges. All we want is equal access and equal opportunity.
And I am mindful of the hour, but let me say this, because I get tired of having to stand up like you have to stand up in your communities around the country and defend your patriotism, defend your love of America simply because you question that which is wrong. I get tired of those who suggest how somehow that because our branches want to speak out and demonstrate and petition for the redress of their grievances that they are somehow less than full-fledged Americans. Let me say to the hate mongers around this country and remind others who listen that I don’t know what else African ancestors must do to exhibit our faith in the American dream or in the American possibility.
I would say to you as I begin to slowly wrap things up that although we have crossed many rivers, we still have yet another river to cross. The gate to the American mainstream remains yet a bridge that resolves itself into discussions on the discussions, proposals on the proposals, studies on the studies. And then another Plan B for the Plan A that failed. We want to be real clear, particularly to the elected representatives. We want to make sure that the message is reported properly .to the rest of the nation. These people are not here today by accident We’re going to start politically involving ourselves in such a way that we re going to be like an old cold-we’re just never going to go away. Like a cold, they won’t have a cure because what we want people to know is that all we’re asking for is a fair and an equitable return on the black dollar. Jobs arenot enough! Listen to me! As I said before, full employment was never the legitimate struggle of the liberation movement. Jobs are important, but jobs are not enough! In full development, which is what we want, full employment is inherent. But in employment, full development is not inherent. We want full development.
The last twenty years, we have concentrated on the public sector and rightfully so. We’ve made our case in the courts, state legislatures, on Capitol Hill and before corporations. But in 1997, we must focus anew, my friends, also on corporate America. We’ve got some friends in the corporate community. They’re seated around us; you see them over and over again; they start looking like family members. They’re there because they continue to push and cajole and jump up and down until somebody pays them attention because they’re jumping up and down for us. But they are the minority.
For people who have suffered, endured and survived three centuries of slavery, oppression, deprivation, degradation, denial and disprivilege, we must stand tall and fight back. We must do it because we have before us a Welfare Reform Bill that punishes children for the sexual transgressions of their parents. Under the guise of the welfare reform, it eliminates Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Why is it important? It is important for us to fight back because hypertension, stroke, cancer, and cardiovascular disease can send you to askew in a disproportionate manner mortality and morbidity tables in our communities.
Why is it important? It is important because a company named Texaco, because the Rodney King of corporate America, because of the existence of tapes which proved what many of you have known all along … that racism exists at the highest level. Why is it important? It is important because five white women recruits in a place called Aberdeen had the nerve to stand forward with the NAACP and distill their stories of coercion by Army investigators hell-bent on changing charges of consensual sex into rape, hell-bent on prosecuting seemingly only black drill sergeants in an army that has gone astray. Why is it important? It is important because 13-year-old Leonard Clark lay comatose for almost three weeks in a Chicago Hospital, beaten nearly to death just because he happened to ride his bike in the wrong neighborhood, and because he happened to be black. Why is it important? It is important because even with a green jacket, for the racists of the world, Tiger Woods was just another black face. To them he was just another nigger.
We must reply that we still have a shining and powerful dream given by a shining and powerful God. When we hear that new version of an old song that speaks of gradualism, when we are told to wait for tomorrow or the next tomorrow, for the next election or the next generation, we must reply as Martin King did from an old Birmingham jail that “now is the time.” Now has always been the time. And so we go believing today not in newspapers, we go believing today not in the pontificators; we go believing not in the politicians or in the government, but believing in ourselves and our mighty God that has brought us a mighty long way. We go believing as James Russell Lowell said,
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet it is Truth alone as strong . …
I can see around her throne,
troops of beautiful tall angels
to shield her from no wrong . . .
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows,
Keeping a watch above his own.
If you are like the young and restless, sitting out there on the edge of night,
and waiting in general hospital as the world turns, through the days of our lives
If the NAACP is not your guiding light, then you need not search for
tomorrow because you will not see another world.