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Public Papers - 1990

Remarks at the 20th Anniversary Dinner of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies


Thank you all for that warm welcome. Wendell, thank you, sir. And to Eddie Williams, my respects and thanks for having me here. And to David Kearns and Vernon Jordan, our old friend, and Jim Robinson, another, thank you all. And to Reverend Newsome, thank you, sir, for that lovely invocation. It's also good to be out on the town with our good friend Elsie Hillman, well-known to many here. And I would especially like to recognize and pay my respects to Doug Wilder, the Governor of Virginia, over here. I'm delighted.

You know, it's remarkable to think that in 1968, less than 2 years before the Joint Center was founded, there were only 200 elected black public officials in all of America. Twenty years later, there are more than 6,000 -- an amazing record. But what I find most heartening is the way in which black leadership in America has become an ordinary, accepted feature of our national life. This new leadership has a tremendous resource in the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. A philosopher once said that no problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking. If that is true, then no problem we face today is a match for the Joint Center, truly one of the leading academies of independent thought in Washington today. Eddie, we congratulate you for your steadfast leadership.

We can see for ourselves tonight that Washington is still a city that thrives on ideas. As Americans from different professions and political parties, we are together on this wonderful evening to celebrate our shared ideals. We may not agree on everything, but we agree on a few great things: liberty, equality, opportunity, and justice for all.

And not long ago, a distinguished group of 15 black publishers from across the country came for lunch at the White House; and we discussed everything from our stimulating meetings with Vaclav Havel, the new playwright-President of Czechoslovakia, to our struggle to battle domestically -- get rid of -- this nation -- rid it of drugs and crime. And after lunch, we walked outside; and together we strolled out of the Oval Office, across the South Lawn and through the Diplomatic Reception Room, into the Residence and up to the Lincoln Bedroom. And it's an impressive room, with its high, imposing ceiling and its tall windows, lace curtains, and old Victorian furnishings. But you know what it is about that room that's so powerful? It's not that Lincoln slept there. In fact, he didn't. [Laughter] It's that he worked there and thought there and agonized there, because he made some of his greatest decisions there. It was his office and the Cabinet Room, and it was where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In a display case along the wall is a copy of the Gettysburg Address, sitting on a desk in the corner, written in Lincoln's dignified hand. In fact, of the five copies he made, that he wrote out in hand, it's the only one that he actually signed. And above it is a great painting titled ``Watch Meeting, Waiting for the Hour.'' It's a very poignant scene, depicting slaves and their friends gathered around an elderly man, a man who had never known a minute of freedom. And now that Lincoln had proclaimed January 1, 1863, as the first day of freedom, all their eyes are fixed on a watch, waiting for the stroke of midnight, waiting to be free.

It is said that Lincoln's hand shook as he dipped his quill into the ink well before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps he felt the weight of history. Perhaps he was weary. In any event, he waited a moment to steady his hand so that no one would think he wavered on such an important decision. Through the vision of one man, millions were freed.

Together, those of us in his room felt the greatness of the events that had taken place in there and the profound consequences of a simple stroke of the pen. In moments like these, history comes rushing back as a revelation, and that very special moment leads me to reflect on the special responsibilities of the Presidency, responsibilities that haven't changed since that midnight of freedom in 1863. Every President since has been challenged to be part of the legacy of Lincoln, the continuum of freedom.

And the day will come -- and it's not far off -- when the legacy of Lincoln will finally be fulfilled at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, when a black man or woman will sit in that Oval Office. And when that day comes, the most remarkable thing about it will be how naturally it occurs. That person will be another President, another traveler in the continuum of freedom, representing all the people of America, representing all that is best about America. You know, I meet a lot of school kids; Barbara goes to a lot of events where kids are there. And I wonder as I look at the faces of brave 10-year-olds swearing to uphold the fight against drugs: Will one of them be President? Is this the kid who will fulfill that legacy?

Now, I saw Jesse Jackson earlier, and I don't want to get anything started, so, Jesse, I'm talking about little kids. [Laughter] I'm not talking about some 49-year-old guy here. I like my job. [Laughter] Let's not rush this thing. Where did he go?

But I also know that prejudice and racial tensions still do exist in America, and that's why I told Ben Hooks and Coretta Scott King and so many others in the civil rights movement that I would use this bully pulpit to condemn in the strongest terms racism, bigotry, and hate.

You know, black Americans have challenged me and our entire administration -- my distinguished friend, Lou Sullivan, who I'm very proud of, knows this to be true -- challenged us to live up to the highest ideals of the civil rights movement, and I accept that challenge. And now let me ask you to work with us to build a better America. There are new missions for the civil rights movement in the 1990's. From now on, the protection of civil rights must also mean the removal of all barriers to opportunity, for there are forms of poverty that cannot be measured or solved by dollars alone.

In fighting against poverty and for opportunity, we must draw inspiration from achievements both at home and abroad. We must draw inspiration from the civil rights and Solidarity movements and from the new hope dawning in South Africa today. For after all, the Freedom March that wound through the country roads of Selma 25 years ago leads to the cobbled streets of Warsaw and Budapest today, and now the winds of change have come to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela is a free man.

Let me just take 1 minute to discuss America's Africa policy, for change is sweeping this troubled continent. But this time, change brings opportunity. So, let us work together to help the peoples of Africa to overcome poverty, disease, starvation, and war. We're working to overcome these problems throughout Africa. And we continue to actively seek national reconciliation in Angola. And we support the efforts of President Chissano to end the fighting in Mozambique. And we are looking for ways we can help the newly independent nation of Namibia.

In Ethiopia, we stand ready to deliver tons of food to save millions facing starvation, and tragically, the war that rages there prevents our access to these people in need. And I call upon the political leaders of Ethiopia to give the highest priority to humanitarian relief by opening all available corridors for the urgent movement of food supplies, and I appeal to other members of the United Nations to use their influence to achieve this vital objective. If you ever have held in your arms, as Barbara and I did -- in the Sudan it was for us -- this kid that is starving -- lay aside the politics. Let's get those routes open. Let's get that food to those starving people in Ethiopia.

South Africa is, of course, of special concern because we can now take hope that the age of apartheid is nearing a close. And there are new signs of flexibility and commitment both from the Government and the opponents of apartheid. President de Klerk has already taken some significant steps, lifting the ban on political parties, releasing Mandela and other political prisoners. And I salute President de Klerk for taking these steps. But even more must be done. The state of emergency must end, and political prisoners must be released. And most of all, there must be an end to the tragic cycle of violence -- a task that demands great courage and resolve from all South African leaders, black and white.

The Government's attempts to enforce apartheid through force and repression have failed, and violent attacks by opponents of apartheid inside South Africa have equally failed. And most tragically, the senseless violence perpetrated by blacks against blacks has become a major impediment to rapid progress toward a negotiated settlement. All sides should follow the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., and renounce violence.

And such a step will nurture the climate for negotiations toward a new system based on equal rights and opportunities. It is imperative that the opposition not miss this opportunity to negotiate seriously a framework for a truly democratic South Africa, liberated from the horror of apartheid. And we are encouraged by signs that all sides share a growing commitment to the negotiating process. We stand ready to support this still-fragile process in any way we can.

Jim Baker, our Secretary of State, has just returned from South Africa, where he met with President de Klerk and the leading members of the black opposition. And he met with Nelson Mandela in Namibia. And I've also invited, as I think everybody here knows, President de Klerk and Mr. Mandela to meet with me at the White House. And I will spare no effort to bring about positive change in South Africa. But we must practice this diplomacy as a nation, and that leads me to say we must continue our programs to assist the disadvantaged majority.

American businesses that remain in South Africa must work for change. And we will make clear our strong conviction that multiparty democracy, based on a vigorous free enterprise system, represents the best model for any successful society. In short, we can all work for change. American influence is strongest when Americans speak with one voice. So, let us work together to forge a strong consensus on South Africa, one that unites all Americans of all races, of both parties in a noble cause.

In America, right here at home, we also seek the fulfillment of a noble cause: to overcome obstacles to opportunity. And in this cause let us look to the heroes of our times. Has the world known more improbable heroes than Rosa Parks and Lech Walesa? But heroes they are. Let us honor them by working together in solidarity.

But opportunity alone is not enough, for there's yet another form of poverty caused by fear. In January, in Kansas City, I saw people who had suffered from crack and crackling bursts of gunfire, not heard there since the days of the old West. And yesterday I visited a 17-year-old black high school student named Derrick Turnbow in a Cincinnati hospital. You see, Derrick was an innocent bystander who got caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out. He was shot in the head, and he's now lying there paralyzed. And the only means left to this honor student to communicate is by winking his eye. And in Alexandria, just across the Potomac, I saw another neighborhood where a crack-crazed addict had slain a policeman. And in my own old congressional district in Houston, Texas, in an area called Acres Homes, I talked with citizens who'd seen their community ravaged by pushers and decided to change all that.

Everywhere I went I found hope. I found people who have had enough of fear, had enough of crime, had enough of dope. And just as the people of East Berlin stood up for freedom, so the people of these neighborhoods are rallying together, using people power to fight for another kind of freedom: freedom from crime and drugs. Freedom from fear. We must march with them in solidarity, side by side, block by block, city by city.

And then there's yet another kind of poverty: the growing poverty of knowledge. Many young men and women in this country are simply not learning. They're not learning the basics to hold down a job or to raise a family, and that is a national disgrace. And we need to improve the quality of education for all Americans and raise our expectations for what we know our children can learn and accomplish. We must again work in solidarity to better our schools.

And that's why I'm pleased that so many of you, leaders from business -- and I run a risk here, but I'd like to single out David Kearns, of Xerox -- along with leaders in government, education, labor, and the media, are working together to better our schools by serving on the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee.

I've discussed just a few of the many ways in which we're trying to fight against poverty and for opportunity to build a better America, and I could go on. But my favorite story says it all. About the kid that went to church with his grandfather, and he said, ``Granddad'' -- the preacher going on and on and on -- the kid says, ``What's those flags along the side of the church there?'' The grandfather said, ``Well, son,'' he said, ``that's for those who died in service.'' And the kid said, ``Oh, really? The 9 or the 11 o'clock service?'' [Laughter]

So, I know you haven't eaten yet, and we are rudely taking off. But look, we've talked about the struggle against crime and fear, and the struggle for better education and opportunity. But the bottom line is simply this: When the morning comes, will we work together for what we have applauded tonight? I've seen your good works. I know that we will. And let us make this the time for solidarity. Martin Luther King spoke of an arc of justice, a continuum of freedom. It is our legacy, our freedom legacy, that makes the sons and daughters of this American nation like no other.

I'm just delighted to have been with you. I came over, Eddie, to say again my thanks and respects to you, sir. And to all of you, thank you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 7:42 p.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Wendell G. Freeland and Eddie N. Williams, chairman and president of the center, respectively; David T. Kearns, national dinner chairman and chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Xerox Corp.; James D. Robinson III, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of the American Express Co.; Elsie H. Hillman, member of the board of directors of the center; Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., master of ceremonies; Jesse Jackson, political leader and civil rights activist; Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

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