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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release February 20, 1996
                      REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                    AND CONGRESSMAN KWEISI MFUME                     
                             Great Hall
                        Department of Justice

12:38 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Myrlie Evers-Williams, for your introduction, for your remarks, and most importantly, for your willingness to take on what appears to be a thankless and could well have been a no-win situation in seizing the helm of the NAACP and helping to bring it to this moment of great celebration and unity. The entire nation is in your debt and we thank you. (Applause.)

To the distinguished members of Congress, the Mayors who are here, the clergy, members of the administration; to the young people who have performed, and the family of Congressman Mfume. Kweisi told me today before we came out that this is a celebration of rebirth and renewal. And the Vice President and I were standing there amidst his -- four of his five strapping young sons; the other is in school or he would be here, showing that he still has his priorities in order -- (laughter). He said, this is going to be a celebration of rebirth and renewal. And so I have given this over to the young people -- and to Roger Wilkins. (Laughter.)

And I must say, as I heard Jaimie speak, and as I heard Jason speak for the Arkansas contingent here, and as I heard Ayinde speak -- by the way, I memorized that poem and I never spoke it half that well. (Laughter.) And then I heard the Morgan State Choir sing, I thought this really is about rebirth and renewal and energy and youth. And I kept cutting my speech shorter and shorter. (Laughter.)

I just want to make a couple of brief points. This country does still need the NAACP. Oh, we are here in the Justice Department today because of what the NAACP has meant to us. When I was the age of these young people here, I can remember what it was like, still, to have a church burned in your home state, to have people intimidated away from pursuing their legal rights.

We are here because of what the NAACP has meant to America. To me and to Al Gore, growing up as white southerners in the South -- we love the NAACP. It made us believe that something good was going to come at the end of the civil rights struggle. It made us believe that we could all live together and grow together. But we know today in this age of incredible possibility for our country, when we have the African American unemployment rate in single digits for the first time in 20 years, 100,000 new African American owned businesses -- we know still that more than half our people are working harder just to keep up.

We know still that, as we glory in these young people being in college, that the college-going rate is going up, but the college-going rate among young people who come from the poorest fifth of our families has leveled off and going down because of the costs. And we know we must never go back to the days of the black church bombings, the other terrible acts of racial terrorism.

And so I want to say, too, we need the NAACP today not only because there are still economic problems and elementary social divisions. We have to do everything we can to see that we determine in this Justice Department who created these recent crimes and all of us stand together against any kind of return to that. (Applause.)

Let me say that as I look across this crowd and I see so many people -- I don't want to call names, but I want to say just one thing about our public life. I see Reverend Jackson and Mrs. King and Dexter and Congressman and Secretary Kemp standing there, sitting there. One of the men who wanted to replace me in the presidential election this year had to undergo the agony of having leaflets passed out against his Asian American wife. That is wrong. We still need the NAACP, and no party can tolerate that sort of thing. And none of our people should. We're all the same in this country and we still haven't learned that yet.

If you look at where we are and where we're going, we can never create opportunity for all Americans who are willing to assume the responsibility to seize it unless we determine to go into the future together. That's what the NAACP must remind us of. That is the great lesson of America, and unfortunately, not every American has learned it yet. And until we all learn it and live by it, we will need to NAACP.

Let me also say that when Kweisi called me to tell me that he was going to take this job, in the words of the old country song, I didn't know whether to kill myself or go bowling. (Laughter and applause.) I had become almost emotionally dependent upon him being in the Congress -- (laughter) -- supporting me when I needed it, reprimanding me when I needed it, whether I knew it or not. (Laughter.) I never have much time for television, but whenever I channel-surfed and saw him doing his talk show on television, I always stopped and marveled at how well he related to all those different kinds of people.

He is a uniquely gifted man, with a personal history that shimmers with the promise of America and the possibility of personal renewal and the virtue of never giving up on yourself or your family or your common possibility.

I can't help but say that in the continuing struggle we have to rescue our young people, when you see these young people, you know there is nothing that they cannot do. And when you see so many others we are losing -- when the crime rate goes down in America, the juvenile violence rate goes up; when drug use goes down in America and drug use among juveniles goes up -- you ask yourself, there's got to be something wrong here when not all of our children don't do this and don't have these opportunities and don't shimmer with their own energy and integrity and possibility. That's what Kweisi Mfume will help to bring to America through the NAACP. (Applause.)

Because he is a Congressman from Maryland and we have so many of his colleagues here, I think we must also say that a lot our hearts were broken when those eight young Job Corps trainees from Maryland perished in the train crash just a few days ago. Like most of you, I sat there, a helpless citizen, watching it on television, thinking about all of the promise of those children. But let me remind you that they were given a chance, and we should remember them and honor them by determining to give every child who needs a chance the chance they were given. And that is why we need the NAACP and why we need Kweisi Mfume to lead it. We should honor that. (Applause.)

Let me finally say that his constituents have given him the greatest recommendation possible for this job in what is going on in the effort to succeed him. (Laughter.) You can tell how good a person is by whether others want to do what he once did, or she once did. We had a mayor in my home town once spend his entire term offering to fix parking tickets in nongrammatical ways. And when he left office, it took us months to find anyone to run. (Laughter.)

When he announced he was leaving 32 people showed up. (Laughter.) It's almost impossible to sort out the election process. It's a great tribute to the standard of public service set by this Congressman. I am laughing about it; I am dead serious -- 28 Democrats and four Republicans showed up because they know it means something to represent the American people in the United States Congress because of the way he represented the people of his district. (Applause.)

So I say to you, my fellow Americans, as someone who is in the personal debt of the NAACP, and as your President, we need the NAACP. I thank every person here who worked here with Myrlie to bring it back together to this point, to shed the old baggage and to go forward with a clear mind and a free heart. And I thank my good friend Congressman Mfume for his willingness to lay down his political career for even higher public service.

It is a wise choice. It will give us a better future. And we are all here to celebrate as I ask the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals, Judge Harry Edwards, to come forward and administer the oath to the new President and CEO of the NAACP.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

(The oath is administered.) (Applause.)

CONGRESSMAN MFUME: God is good -- all the time.

President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Attorney General Reno, Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, Honorable elected officials, and in particular, Senator Mikulski, Senator Sarbanes, Congressman Cardin and Mayor Schmoke. Distinguished members of the clergy, members of the NAACP board, ladies and gentlemen. It is a high honor and a distinct privilege to stand before you this morning as President and CEO of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.

Mr. President, it is particularly pleasing, as was noted, that both you and Vice President Gore have made time in your busy schedules to join us. Our friendship over the years has been one of mutual respect and mutual admiration, and a shared commitment for equal opportunity and equal justice under the law for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, religion or ethnicity.

I'm going to ask if you would indulge me that we again salute our Vice President, who, as was introduced earlier but who I'd like to also indicate, deserves a special salutation because of his friendship as well. Vice President Gore. (Applause.)

To Myrlie Evers-Williams, I stand here and happily salute you for your dedication and for your courage as my chairwoman, my leader and my friend. You are indeed a Renaissance woman, and ours is a team for the future. (Applause.)

To my family members who are gathered here today, and in particular, to my sons, thank you for allowing me to be of service to other people. When I think of the many days and the many nights that we didn't have enough time to sit down longer and share a meal together, or watch a good movie, or go and deal with a home assignment, because I was out at a meeting, or speaking at an event, or working at the office, I realize even more how much a sacrifice each and every one of you made in sharing your Dad with everyone else.

Donald, Kevin, Keith, Michael, and Ronald, who is taking an examination at this hour, you all are the love of my life. (Applause.) You are the reason that it has all been worthwhile. And if God chose to give me nothing else in life, the five of you represent a gift for which I will be forever grateful. (Applause.)

Before I begin my formal remarks, allow me, if you would, to thank two personal friends. One is the gentleman who entered my life pretty much after I was orphaned and motherless and, in many respects, fatherless, who took me in and treated me as if I was his own child, who let me eat from his table, who found me employment, who told me always to look straight ahead and never to look back. He has come here from Miami, Florida -- and, Jim Sears, would you please stand for just a moment. (Applause.)

The other person is a personal friend who also joined us this morning. Earl Graves is the publisher of Black Enterprise Magazine, and a fellow Morgan alumnus and, in many respects, the big brother than I never had. His help and his wise counsel throughout the process leading to the acceptance of this new position, in many respects, has made today possible. And, Earl, would you please stand for just a moment as well. (Applause.)

My thanks to all of you who gathered here for this ceremony, and those who have meant so much over the years, those of you who are white and Hispanic and Asian and Jew and Native American, those of you who have come from the North and the East and the South and the West to the Justice Department, know that we have chosen this place carefully.

We are here today because there was a time in our nation's history when the descendants of Africa were not allowed into the Justice Department, when we had to learn as too many others often knew that justice deferred was justice denied. And we come here also because, as an organization of people believing in the possibility of man, we will continue to insist on equal justice and equal treatment under the law for all of America's citizens.

The NAACP is at a crucial point in its history. In fact, and perhaps, it is at the most critical point. The focus for rebuilding this organization must be on developing new and effective ways of involving young people. It must focus on voter empowerment, which has as its components voter registration, voter education and then voter participation. It must focus in these new days anew on educational excellence and individual responsibility. And it must create an infrastructure for economic and social parity for all of America's people.

And so there is much work to be done and, indeed, the time for such work is now. The NAACP will reclaim its voice as the rightful place of African Americans and others who believe in the power and the premise that all people are, in fact, created equal. We will accomplish this by reinvigorating the age-old concept of coalition building, where people work together for the common good and values become the centerpiece of our lives.

The task ahead is significant. The extreme, ultra-conservative policies of the far right wing in our nation are draconian, they are punitive and they are backward. They are policies that punish the elderly, restrict the poor and deny opportunity to our children. Those policies must be countered with effective and realistic responses that reflect our need as a society for inclusion and for tolerance.

Similarly, policies borne out of the guilt or the misdirected compassion of the ultra left that seek as their sole objective the maintenance of the poor are equally punitive and just as backward. If we have learned nothing else over the last 30 years it is, in fact, that the poor must not be maintained, they must be transformed. (Applause.)

Part of that transformation must also lie in the importance that we place on individual talent, individual achievement and individual responsibility -- and also, the importance that we place on families. As President of the NAACP I commit to you that racism and sexism and anti-Semitism will not be allowed to enjoy a comfortable and quiet acceptance. Bigotry, whether black or white, will be deemed as unacceptable and indefensible. The damaging divisions brought on xenophobia will not be allowed to color our thinking about those who come to our shores in search of a better life. Discrimination and intolerance of other Americans because of their religion or orientation will not find comfort. Fear, which often finds its incubator in our refusal to stand up for what is right, will forever be challenged by a new NAACP, reunited and reinvigorated, standing at the threshold of change. (Applause.)

Clearly, the job before us will not be easy. There are new obstacles, and new problems that in their existence create new diversions. Red-lining in black and Hispanic communities that deny hard-working people the right to buy a home because they are judged not by their credit record, but because of their zip code, cannot be allowed to continue. Child abuse, drug abuse, which run rampant too often in too many communities, must be confronted. Access to capital and credit, the greatest imperative to minority economic business development, must be talked about and thought about on a national level so that we make national change. Despair and cynicism in the eyes of young people because they feel they are not included and their ideas don't count can't be allowed to take hold.

The time is also now for this organization, understanding then new obstacles and the new diversions, to right itself on a course that will ensure its future. So the time is now to restore the financial, spiritual and political health of this historic American institution. Financially, we need your help and we need your support. Dollars are needed immediately to help us end the red ink and to become soluble again. Today I am asking at this podium and from this juncture that all who care about the need for an NAACP that will bring people together and heal the divisions in our society to take out new membership or to renew an old membership. And for those who can do more, I ask that you donate to us in whatever amount you can. But make no mistake about it: I have said, and I will continue to say, there will be change. It will be swift, it will be focused and it will be constructive.

Efficiency and fiscal integrity within our organization will not be a concept. It will be, as Mrs. Evers-Williams has noted, a way of life, a reality. The time is now also for a new generation to step forward and to join the NAACP. While maturity and experience are valued, we must also learn to cherish youth. (Applause.) I have said and will reiterate today that it is the development of such youth which will continue to be my overwhelming priority. The development and reinvigoration of our branches and our college chapters will be among my highest priorities. Failing to develop roles and responsibilities for our young people will certainly ensure our failure later on.

Our branches, throughout this country 2,200 strong, are the lifeblood of this organization. When times got tough and friends got few, they never lost the faith. They continue to work in their communities and in their churches, to carry forth the historic mission of the NAACP. They continue to find us new members, and they challenge all of us to find new hope.

Those branches are important, but how they operate is even more important. So I say to all of you who are working across this country in NAACP branches, understand your own reality. Many of our branches are on the threshold of generational change. You must not resist it. You must embrace it. (Applause.) Just as others of a previous generation once embraced us, we must make room for the young. We must allow for new blood and for new ideas to become a part of our development. Young people in our communities want to be involved, but they want to be involved in real and meaningful ways.

So I challenge you then in our branches across this nation to go out and to find them, to recruit their energies and their talents, to give them real roles and real responsibilities, and at the end of the day, to hold them accountable as you should and as you must. It is out of dedicated actions such as that that we ensure our collective relevancy as an organization.

The NAACP has a proud history, filled with major accomplishments, as you heard, that have changed America forever. The lives of citizens who are black and white and Asian and Hispanic and Latino and Native American have been made better because of it. And yet out country still, in many respects, is in desperate need. The choice many of us face today is whether to stand by and to watch in the comfort of our own circumstance, or to step forward and dare to get involved.

In his renowned chronology of the NAACP, looking at just the period of 1909 to 1920, Charles Kellogg began his historical work with this observation -- and I quote. He said "In the first decade of the 20th century, few voices were raised in defense of the Negro and of his rights as a citizen of the United States. Reactionary attitudes about race had been strengthened. And by 1909, the civil rights gain during Reconstruction had been severely limited. The prevailing attitudes toward the Negro were reflected," he said, "in the sensational press, in the hate literature, in the periodicals of the intellectuals in court decisions reinterpreting the 14th and 15th Amendment," and he said, "in the legislature."

Eighty-seven years later, in the last decade of the same century, few voices are again being raised in defense of African Americans and their rights as citizens of the United States. Reactionary attitudes about race, regrettably, continue to be strengthened. Civil rights gained during the second Reconstruction have also been severely limited. And the prevailing attitudes toward minorities are still reflected in the sensational press, in the hate literature and in the periodicals of the intellectuals, as well as in the decisions of the courts.

Only a strong, revitalized and focused NAACP can accept then the realities that were present in the first decade and readjust to the challenges still present in the last decade of this century. And so, then, it is in the interest of all people that we succeed in creating a new hope, a new opportunity, a new dignity, a new horizon, a new chance for each and every American.

I ask that all who care about what's fair and decent in this nation join me under this banner to begin that journey for change. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

END 1:15 P.M. EST