2008 Conference Keynote Address

Keynote Address by Kweisi Mfume

December 5, 2008

Kweisi MfumeKweisi Mfume, Political and Business Leader gave the keynote address at the 25th annual Human Rights Day Conference.

Read more about the acclaimed civil rights leader in his biography, here.

Transcript of Keynote Address

Good afternoon. I want to first begin obviously by thanking (host) Angela (Davis) for those kind and overly gracious remarks, for her work on behalf of this program and for all of you who have made this what it is. I particularly am appreciative that the Commissioner, Ms. Korbel, invited me here, extended an invitation to share with you my thoughts and my ideas. Velma, thank you very, very much for that, and I want to thank Jim Kirkpatrick for picking me up and making sure that I didn’t go to the wrong place—that I got here today.
Kweisi Mfume

There are a lot of distinguished people in this audience. My thanks to all of you for taking time out of your day to be here. I have to confess that I’ve been battling a terrible cold thing. In fact, it’s the worst that I have had in a long time. My little granddaughter said, “You don’t have a cold, you have the cooties, granddad.” What’s up with that? “Cooties?” What in the world... a new vernacular. So bare with me, and you know, I got off the plane last night and I walked through the jet way and someone reminded me it was 13 degrees and I said, “Ok. When I get to the banquet maybe they’ll give me a moment for reaffirmation.” Is that right? Now, I need your help. I really do. I need everybody in the room to do me one quick favor for one quick minute. Just take the hand if you would of one person near you, just one person. Now, sir you’re a Ph.D., one, not two hands, one, uno, not two hands. Look that person in the eyes, and say, “Hello neighbor. Hello friend. God has brought us through thick and thin, and to our cause we must be true, but I can’t help it if I look better than you.” ...A warm welcome -- we’ve got to warm up.

I understand there will be a period afterwards for some questions and answers and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you and trying to answer any questions, and listening to your comments, quite frankly. I’m just glad to be here; I’m glad particularly because of what this department has stood for; glad because of the groundbreaking positions that this state has taken over more than a hundred years – on the issue of human rights, civil rights, and glad also because you’re still here. My concern is not for the present, but for the future and I hope that the state and all of the powers to be within the state recognize the significance of this department; recognize that it cannot function on its own, that it must have real support, both monetary and real support in terms of how we talk about its importance, and if that happens the future will be as bright as the past. And it is very important to raise those issues because at a time of great consequence they’re trying to find a way to cut this and cut that. But people who need advocates don’t need to have their advocates disappear. That’s my political statement -- I’m done.

Now, now the theme is, “Look back, but march forward,” and I’m going to if I can, in deference to and out of great respect for the late Johnnie Carr, try to embellish her remarks, which became the theme of this conference, and to do it in a way that, hopefully, makes some sense and that really goes to the heart of why you do what you do. You see, from my perspective here I can see this is a beautiful audience. It’s welcoming to see the tremendous representation of attorneys and mediators, and advocates and academicians and government officials from across the state. But this afternoon I'm really inclined to speak to, and encouraged to talk to, the family. And the word family includes not only those just bound and tied by a blood relationship, it is also those who are bound and tied by a common need or condition. And, yes, it’s true that sometimes it’s difficult for us to determine just what condition our condition is in because often times we have a common condition and a mutual affliction. And so we’re called together at moments like this, to reason and to think, “Look back, but march forward.”

When we look back at the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Rosa Parks, and the countless, nameless and faceless individuals who raised a relentless campaign for equal opportunity. The election of America’s first black president provides an interesting juxtaposition. If we are smart as a nation, we will take a step back from our deserved sense of accomplishment, just long enough to pay honor and pay tribute to a generation of Americans, who even in the grips of Jim Crow, and in the grips of segregation, found a way to still believe in the American dream and the American possibility. They couldn’t always speak the King’s English correctly. They didn’t have, as many of us do, college degrees. Their backs were often bent, their wrinkles far too recessed, and their lives were prematurely short. They were a generation of Americans who prayed day in and day out for a new day, and in the process laid their bodies down where they were, in their time, that we might one day run across and get to where we are now. They looked back, but they marched forward. They saw America through the troubled years of legal lynchings and Jim Crow, through the years of manufactured grandfathered clauses and poll taxes and literacy tests where if you were black in order to vote you had to tell how many bubbles were in a bar of soap. They fought the just fight–to integrate the military and to abolish official segregation there as we knew it. They found a way to help a nation divided against itself, through the confusion and the turbulence of the 50s and the 60s.

And so the relevance of Dr. King’s dream for all Americans is not just a matter of having come a long, long way, but rather and instead it’s a matter of us still yet having a long way to go. And that in turn begs the question not when do we get there, but what path do we take. Progress has been made over the last five decades in our nation. We don’t deny that. We should celebrate it every chance we get. However, despite the changes undeniable that too many people still live in poverty and the economic disparity has in fact grown. African Americans, Latinos, poor Asians, Native Americans and poor Whites who are part of the working class of the working poor continue to fall further behind. And so we are called to come together in moments like this to reason and to think.

You see, if we were to request here in this building from the computer room a simple computer printout of all the salient issues facing us today as Americans, whether educational, institutional social, or systemic, it’s clear that the computer would printout a list of problems that would be overwhelming. Institutionally it would remind us that family, military, church and school are all under attack for either real or imagined defects. Politically, the recent election notwithstanding, the Joint Senate for Political Studies still reminds us that 44 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, less than 10 percent of all the elected officials in this country are of African American, Hispanic, or Asian ancestry. Socially, the issue of race and skin color still dominates far too many aspects of American life, both at home and abroad. Educationally, the computer would remind us that too many of our public schools today are overcrowded and ill equipped and some of those schools drugs are more available than textbooks, and that too many young people in those schools are being promoted because of their age, or because of their size. Economically, it would become very clear that after years of congressional acquiesence to the concept of Robinhood-in-reverse, the haves and the have nots have not at all.

And although the best social program is a job, jobs are not enough. Full employment was never the legitimate goal of the civil rights movement. Full employment was not the goal–full development was the goal. See as slavery, we had full employment–everybody had a job. In full development, employment is inherent, but in full employment, development is not necessarily inherent. So we really advocate and we struggle and we do as many of you do, for the concept of full development, socially, and educationally, and politically, economically, and institutionally. We struggle to keep in place the concept that serves as the bedrock of that development, this thing we call values and the value of values – work hard, play by the rules, love your country, cherish your faith, respect your elderly -- all of that fits into this struggle that many of you find yourselves in day in and day out a part of, and you didn’t get drafted; you signed up.

You know, at the historic march on Washington, almost a half century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before a quarter of a million people assembled at the memorial of one of our nation’s greatest leaders, and on that famous day, Martin Luther King Jr., heir to Abraham Lincoln, addressed the crowd in these words when he said, “We have come to our nation’s capitol to cash a check. They weren’t the architect’s of the republic that wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, but they were in fact signed a promissory note to which every American was to one day fall heir. He said that note was a promise that all men and indeed all women would be guaranteed the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And yet, looking back we know that even before the republic was formed, it compromised moral claims, and the moral principles articulated in that Declaration of Independence and in that preamble to the Constitution and all the other pronouncements that were issued at the time, to justify our revolution against tyranny, by average, subjective human beings to challenge the bondage of flesh as well as the bondage of the spirit. Enslavement of the Negro, extermination of the Indian, the annexation of the Hispanic, made in many respects the birth of our great nation an iniquitous conception, below the standards of where we are and where we seek for others to go. And the 200 years since then as a group of people, as a band of states, we have surpassed the wildest expectations of those founding fathers. We’ve gone beyond human measure and created a nation of unparalleled power and influence. We’ve grown from that small band of 13 impoverished colonies to become the strongest, the wealthiest, most powerful, the most influential nation on the face of the earth. Our wealth as a nation despite the current recession is unmatched. America’s military forces perhaps despite all of the propaganda really have no equal. Our industry and our technology remains superior -- Europe and Asia would not withstand and because of our ideals and because of our principles we still wield the mighty and forceful hand in world affairs.

There can be no doubt that the American flag is still respected by billions of the world’s people as the symbol of freedom from tyranny. Every morning at the beginning of their day, school children across the nation stop, pause and utter the words, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

And yet, in some ways and great effort, we are still not yet one nation. Many of our citizens still do not see their existence as having been due to or under the direction of God. We are not yet totally indivisible. And no where can it be said in our lifetime’s that we practice liberty and justice for all of our people. The genius that the founders bequeathed to us was to have been and realized the form of government based on opportunity, measured against the promise of America; we still find ourselves sometimes falling short in ways that continue to haunt us, plague us and divide us -- hate radio, hate groups, hate speech, hate activity–all work against the concept of a free and equal society. And, yet, there still is no better place on earth, to build hopes to realize dreams and to do the impossible than this place that we all call home.

A part of being an American and part of being advocates as you are and part of understanding right from wrong also means being courageous enough as many of you have been, to speak out against that which is wrong and to fight back against those things that are unfair and unjust. Allow me if I might talk about why that’s important, this speaking out, this concept of saying, not we have a problem with that, this notion of saying, we can do better, and even the latest notion, “Yes, we can.”

Some of you won’t remember the movie, Apollo 13. Allow me for just a moment to procreate without license the words of actor Tom Hanks who played the role of an astronaut on that spacecraft. You will recall that when the spacecraft began to lose power, and began to lose altitude, Hanks as the commander was faced with a major issue, a major problem, and understanding that he also understood that because of this problem and what it represented, he had to find a way to communicate the seriousness of what he was confronting at a time of crisis. And so, when the onboard radio finally got a flicker of electricity and began to work for a few minutes, he quickly radioed back a clear message to Houston, a clear message to Mission Control, and he said in five simple, concise words, “Houston. We have a problem.” And so when breast cancer and prostrate cancer and diabetes and cardiovascular disease and kidney disease and hypertension and HIV and full blown AIDS ravage poor communities, and the disparities in health care go unnoticed or unchecked by the larger medical community, we must be the ones to stand up and say, “Wait. We have a problem there.”

When we look out at the fact that so many of our young people are incarcerated and given harsher penalties for the same offense than others simply because they’re poor black, poor white, poor Latino, we’ve got to stand up and just say, “You know; we have a problem.” When banks and insurance companies deny loans or charge double for insurance just because of a person’s zip code, their surname or their skin color, we have a problem. When too many of our public schools remain overcrowded, ill-equipped, and dangerously violent, we’ve got to be the first to say, we have a problem.

When we allow as we do in this society, increasingly song lyrics to defame our collective struggle, to demean our ancestors, to denigrate our women, and to disrespect our culture, we have to say, “We have a problem.” And when if you are black like me, we refuse to stand up and take responsibility for our lives and our futures, and spend all of our time blaming white people, we have a problem. We have a world unapologetically caught up in hype and super hype and so the real issues affecting real people often times go unaddressed. Many news programs, save but a few, have become watered down versions of Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition, and so the challenge is to force the focus on those things in which the media seemingly has no fixation.

Case in point. This morning in this state and every state in this nation men and women got up and will go through the entire day praying that their husband or that their wife or their father or their mother or their child or they themselves don’t get ill because for those 47 million Americans, they don’t have any health insurance. Tonight, in the greatest nation on the face of the earth, one out of six children will go to bed and close their eyes, living below the poverty level. Last year a million families lost pensions because of tricks and games, corporations and others, to get out of commitments. This year 2 million more would have lost their jobs altogether. It has become increasingly harder as you know to pay tuitions, to save mortgages from foreclosure and to pay medical bills.

And to underscore our reality even more, our nation still remains locked in a punishing war of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan; a war whose rationale has changed repeatedly both before it started and even today. Like you, I commend the bravery and the sacrifice of many women in uniform. I’m the father of an ex-Marine. They represent all races and they represent all faiths, but I have to say that I am glad that we will have a president who believes that it’s time to bring them home to a hero's welcome, or to deploy them so they can really fight terrorism and really fight for homeland security. My opinion only, but the outgoing administration didn’t seem to understand that oftentimes when wars are fought in the name of democracy, if we are not careful, the first casualty is oftentimes democracy itself. Because as the war raged abroad for the last 5 years, the attack on our civil liberties here at home marched on.

Under a host of new laws ushered in by the outgoing administration, government agents now have the right to seize business records, to search a home, to get information about your web searching activity with minimal judicial review. The new laws allow the FBI to monitor telephone or email communications, not overseas, but here in this country without demonstrating probable cause. And the advocates of these new policies have conveniently given cover to the major telecommunications companies who last year provided private information on everyday hard-working Americans without question and without a subpoena.

And so the clarion call, at conferences like this, must go out to all of you who are part of the caring community and to the various organizations on both sides of the political spectrum, to lead the way and continuing to advocate for greater oversight of federal law and federal policy, to help lead the way to protect the Constitution, it’s bill of rights and the concepts of free speech, freedom of assembly and due process enshrined therein, and without apology, we really should use this occasion to call for fairness and to call for balance on our Supreme Court, in particular, and in all courts in general. And we must be unwavering in our opposition and our lack of tolerance for those persons who irresponsibly advocate violence and violent acts against judges, against juries, against witnesses and against those whom they disagree with. We must demonstrate a lack of tolerance for them. Their actions harken our attention back to the Timothy McVeighs of this world, persons who think that they can kill innocent people without consequence.

And so, looking back, before we march forward, just a couple of other things, and I’ll get out of your way. We know that difficulties in our society between groups are not novel or new, but we must also know that our approach to those difficulties and differences must be both. For more than 200 years, we’ve all joined together, different colors, different creeds, different nationalities, different faiths, all under one flag. And while our assembled diversity has produced the most successful experiment of democracy in the world’s history, we still by no means have achieved perfect harmony.

Slavery was allowed to exist legally for almost 200 years. Crosses were burned in an ugly desecration of a symbol of love. Just over a century ago, Protestants and Catholics battled in the streets of New York City and on that day, 44 Catholics were killed. At the end of the decade of the 1930s, a ship by the name of The St. Louis with a human cargo of Jewish men and Jewish women was denied safe harbor in this -- the land of the free and home of the brave -- and sent back to a madman named Hitler. At the beginning of World War II, Japanese Americans were huddled up and placed behind bars by our government because we thought that they would somehow forget their loyalty to their new home. After the attacks of 911, Arab and Muslim Americans we set upon and beaten by angry mobs in streets all over this country because of their religion and their ethnicity were deemed to be a threat to the America that they themselves loved. There have been times when we have sought to ban the teaching of a foreign language and to slam shut the doors of elementary schools simply because they were sponsored by religious groups. And so, yes, there have been occasions and, yes, there have been periods where our differences of race, our differences of religion, and our differences of nationality have produced an ugly alienation instead of producing harmony.

My friends, there is still yet another difference. It is the difference between the people who have and the people who have not -- the difference between the people in this room, you and I to be sure, and the millions of men and women all over this nation at this hour who are out of work, or working at jobs that provide them with a scant living and no real dignity; the difference between us, living as we do in relative comfort and the millions of people afflicted by the terrible and tearing pain of drug addiction; the difference between us and the illiterates; the difference between us and the homeless; the difference between our children parents, and the 15-year-olds in this city and cities across this nation who at this hour are about to give birth to children of their own, lost, unprepared, and about to raise another generation of disadvantaged children. Those differences produce tension; those differences produce frustration; they produce anger. America at her best has always treated those differences with a blend of commonsense and compassion. America at her worse has treated those differences with the empty even hands of Marie Antoinette—“Just let them eat cake”, she said. “We can’t be bothered. “

And so, marching forward in this era a small vision, rampant apathy and celebrated mediocrity, we so desperately need those of you who continue to stand up and speak out with that which is right and to fight back against that which is wrong, to mean it when we say that racism and sexism and anti-Semitism are wrong, to know that black bigotry is just as cruel and evil as white bigotry, to understand in our heart of hearts that gay bashing and union bashing, and religion bashing, and immigrant bashing deplete us as a nation and rob us of our ability to achieve the greatness that awaits for all of us.

So why you might ask is all of that important. It’s important because too often we sometimes find ourselves holding fast to the conclusions of others. We subject sometimes all facts to a kind of prefabricated set of interpretations. We’ve learned to enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. But in speaking out we must do so in a way that’s fair and honest and true to our own sense of fairness. You see, the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—we know that’s deliberate, we know it’s contrived, we know it’s dishonest. The great enemy of the truth is very often times the myth because it is persistent and pervasive and unrealistic and left unchallenged it soon becomes the fact and the next thing that we have to fight against. So be sure that long after the luncheon is over and we’ve gone our separate ways, that there will be those who will come to you, you are the advocates, you who do God’s work as I believe, and you who, as I said before didn’t get drafted for this thing, who recognized it was an important step, be sure to know that after this moment there will be those who will try to counsel you to be silent in this reactionary time. They will suggest that you look the other way and hope for the best, but I refuse to stand mute when opportunity is denied and justice is deferred and I ask of you not to stand mute also. So that when future generations, long after we’re all gone, peer through that long telescope of history, let them say of us and of our generation that when it came to working and making sure that we worked to protect law and the rights on the law that we did the right thing, that we were on the right side, that we believe that the notion of being able to petition your government for the proper redress of grievances was something in our time that we enshrined and held on to, or that the ability of the courage to question authority must always be something that we acknowledge. Let them say that we didn’t waiver, that we didn’t flinch, that we did not shirk our responsibilities, that we faced the issues head on during this time of great challenge and great hope. And let it be said that we also worked hard to protect a great society for generations yet unborn.

So we’ve convened at this annual and august occasion, this luncheon, to look at where we have been and to get prepared to march forward with all the strength that we can summon. We do it under the auspices of the Minnesota Human Rights Department; we do it in the belief that it’s the right thing, that it’s the American thing, that at the end of the day, it always makes our country better. And in speaking of that, let me just say this. I’ve not given up on the American dream or the American possibility, and I ask you as you go about the task of your work, to remind others that you come in contact with, not to give up also. I am convinced that our nation still stands before the world as perhaps the last expression of a possibility of mankind, devising a social order where justice is the supreme ruler and law is but its instrument, where freedom is dominate creed and order but its principle, where equity is the common practice and fraternity the true human condition. It’s a great future; we go into it from a great past; we take lessons; we take hopes; we take dreams, but most of all we take a sense of fairness, a sense of belief that the United States of America and that all the various people who are part of that union, will find a way, day and day out to overcome the legacies that we all collectively came to and to build a future that we all shall subscribe to. Thank you, very much.