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Secretary Andrew Cuomo's Speech to the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference

2500 Calvert Street, N.W. Washington, D.C.

July 28, 1998


MARTIN LUTHER KING III: ... Let me now introduce a man who has the rarest form of political courage, the courage to stand up for what is right, the courage to take on the unpopular fights, the courage to 'Be' in a real sense. Let me say that I'm proud to introduce our friend. Let's give him an SCLC welcome. Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

SECRETARY CUOMO: Thank you. Thank you all very much and good afternoon. It's truly my pleasure and my honor to be here today, first with all the members of board of directors and the honorees today, especially Dr. Price who's an inspiration to all of us.

Mayor Emanuel Cleaver is a phenomenal mayor for his city, Kansas City, but he's also a phenomenal mayor for every city in this nation because he speaks about issues that no one else speaks to. He's a light for all of us to follow and it's my pleasure to be with him. Thank you, very much, Mayor.

The whole King family, especially Mrs. Coretta Scott King who has been the sustaining strength for all of us for all these years. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Martin Luther King, III, who in my opinion is uniquely qualified to lead the SCLC now because he truly stands on the shoulders of giants to reach heights that we've never reached before. I'm excited to follow you, Martin. On behalf of President Clinton, let me say it's going to be our pleasure to work with you and the SCLC over these many years. Thank you, very much.

We have with us today some people from HUD. We have Alvin Brown who's been here today and yesterday and last night working to make the conference a success.

We have Father Joseph Hacala who's here with us from the Department. The Father is the only member of the religious order who is actually a political appointee in this government. What the Father is trying to do is make new marriages between government and faith-based institutions.

In many communities, the church is the strength. The church is the anchor. Let's use that as the foundation and build on that foundation and let's make those marriages more than ever before.

Before I begin today; listening to Martin and listening to the mayor, it reminds me of the Mississippi story of the farmer and the flood. You know the story of the farmer and the flood? You're going to know it now.

Down in Mississippi, a farmer is on his farm, the farm was in his family for generations, his father's generation, generation before that. It starts to rain in Mississippi. It's raining and it's raining and it's raining harder and it's raining harder. It's now raining for a number of days and the officials are getting nervous because the river is starting to swell and they're forecasting floods.

So the local officials go out, get in this big truck and say to the farmer 'Get in the truck and pack up your belongings. We're going to take you to safety because it's been raining so hard. The river is cresting and it's going to flood and we're going to bring you to safety.'

The farmer looked back at the officials and said, 'No. I go to church on Sunday. I'm a God fearing man and the Lord will take care of me.'

They said, 'Please get in the truck.' He said, 'No. The Lord will take care of me.' They left a little disappointed. It kept raining and raining and raining. Now it's 30, 40 days of rain. The rain is now five, six feet on the crest and the river's coming down.

The officials come back in a boat and they go back to the farm and they see the farm and they say 'Please get in the boat, grab whatever belongings you can.' But the rain continued and now there's going to be a flood for sure. But we can still take you to safety. Please get in the boat.

The farmer says, 'No. I go to church on Sunday. I'm a God fearing man. The Lord will take care of me.' They said I know that, but please get in the boat. He said no.

They leave. The rain keeps coming. Now the farmer is standing on the roof of the farmhouse and the water is up to his neck and only his head is above the water. He's looking up. Almost miraculously out of the clouds comes a helicopter. The helicopter drops down a rope. The helicopter says 'Grab the rope. We can still save you. Please grab the rope, farmer.'

The farmer looks up with just his head of above the water and the farmer says, 'No. I go to church on Sunday. I'm a God fearing man. The Lord will take care of me.' They said, 'Forget that. Grab the rope.' He said, 'No, the Lord will take care of me.'

Next scene the farmer is at the Pearly Gates and he sees our Lord. He says, 'Lord. I'm confused. I went to church every Sunday. I prayed. I was a God fearing man. What happened?' Our Lord looked back at the farmer and he said, 'You're confused? I'm confused. I sent a truck, a boat and a helicopter.'

I'm going to come back to the farmer because the moral really is, in the final analysis, it's up to you. We can work together. We can have a great organization. We can have great leadership. But in the final analysis, it's up to you. You have to grab the rope. You have to get in the truck. You have to get in the boat. I'll come back to that.

This nation is doing extraordinarily well on one set of books, by one calibration. Truly, this economy is hitting all sorts of historic highs. If you had forecasted this type of economic growth four years ago, they would have said you're smoking something funny. It's impossible that the economy is going to be this high. Great story of economic success.

But at the same time, you have a lot of places in this nation and a lot of people who don't share in that success. As strong as the story is of success, is the story of the people who are in the shadow of that success…who haven't had that great boom, who haven't seen their income skyrocket and the repugnance between the haves and the have nots has gotten so bad that it borders on the obnoxious at times.

If you look at the story of America right now, you have almost two realities, dual realities. You have more millionaires than ever before in the history of this nation. But you also have the greatest income inequality in 20 years where ten percent of the population now owns more than 90 percent of the wealth.

You have the highest home ownership rate in the nation. 66 percent more Americans own their own homes today than ever before, but you also have 600,000 homeless people who we still allow to sleep on the street every night. You're not a success.

I don't care how high the Dow Jones gets, 8000 points, 9000 points, that's a new record. You're not that rich when you still have one out of every five children sleeping in poverty tonight. You can't say that you have the strongest economy when you have this many people left out.

African Americans happen to be left out disproportionately. The numbers are staggering. Eighty percent of those people living in urban poverty are African Americans. African American babies are twice as likely to die as white babies. African American children are five times as likely to get shot as non African Americans. African American teenagers are ten times more likely to drop out of school. The murder rate for African American males 18 to 24 is ten times what it is for non-African Americans.

You can't say that you are a success as a nation when you have that kind of discordant growth. You can't say you're a success when you have that disparity. You have more people in prison in this nation than any other industrialized nation on the globe. You can't say you're a success and disproportionately they are African Americans.

You as a nation are spending more to keep a person in a jail cell than it would have cost to educate them at Harvard University. You are not a success.

It is not a coincidence that disproportionately you have African Americans and Latinos in the class that is left out. The hard painful truth, but the unavoidable truth is that racism is alive and well in America 1998, and it hurts to admit it. We wish that it was gone. We thought that we got past this ugly stain on this nation. People died so that we shouldn't be here today.

But we are here today. If we don't admit it, what it said on the screen, if we don't admit that discrimination is alive and well, we will never solve it. If you refuse to recognize the problem, you are condemned to live with it forever.

The first step towards the solution is the recognition. Discrimination in one way is as ugly as it's ever been, but in one way it's grown a little and it's a little more sophisticated than it has been. We now call it discrimination with a smile. It's the '90s version of discrimination.

It's the landlord who smiles and says I'm sorry, but that apartment is already rented when it's still going to be vacant. It's the bank officer who looks at the application and looks at you and says I'm sorry. You don't qualify for the loan. But the bank officer didn't look at the application. He looked at the color of your skin. That was the basis of the determination.

It's the cab driver who drives down the block and goes right past you as you're hailing the cab like you're invisible. Never saw you, is going right past you.

That is a discrimination with a smile, just as destructive and just as dangerous as the old type of discrimination with a fist, with a voice, with an anger. A little more subtle, but just as dangerous.

We still have the old-fashioned discrimination. We still have what we had in the '60s. We have a New Orleans apartment complex where you walked in, if you were black, they put you on one side of the complex. You walk in, you're white, they put you on the other side of the complex. Two swimming pools, one for the blacks and one for the whites. That's 1998 New Orleans. That's not 1960.

The voice you heard on the tape [of a HUD public service announcement], the woman in Buffalo, New York, showed an apartment to an African American woman. They said if you rent that apartment to the African American, we're going to blow up the apartment and we're going to blow up your house.

1998 America. Portuguese woman. In Missouri, moved in. She was Portuguese. They thought she was African American. They planted a seven foot cross in her lawn and burned it.

Then if you had any doubt, any doubt whether or not it was still with us, you have Jasper, Texas. Jasper, Texas did not get the kind of attention that it should have in this nation. Because we don't want to hear this and we don't want to talk about it and we certainly don't want to see it on the national news. But just as ugly as anything that happens in the '50s and '60s.

You took an African American man. You dragged him to death with a chain around his neck until you decapitated him. His only crime was the color of his skin. Just as ugly. That is the painful reality.

This is not going to go away unless we have the courage to step up and address it. That's why this convening is so important. We tried leaving it alone in the '70 and '80s. We were lulled into a false sense of security. Well, maybe this is gone. Maybe racism is a thing of the past. Maybe we solved it…that it's resolved. It's not. It's not. It is still with us. We have to confront it. We have to resolve it once and for all.

Two steps. One, opportunity for all. Opportunity for all. That was the promise of the nation. It's not a reality yet. We have to work to make it a reality. It's not going to happen by itself. We need an affirmative government partnership to make this happen.

It's going to start with education. In this new economy, more than ever before, if you don't have an education, you're not going to make it. This is not the information economy. It's about what you know. It's about how well you think.

You're not going to work your way out of poverty the way you could with a shovel or a cart. You're going to have to think your way out of poverty which means everything is going to be the education.

Education always was the great equalizer in this society. Didn't matter who you were, where you came from. You could go to a public education system and wind up a mayor of a city or wind up President of the United States.

Not anymore. You look at this public education system. It's moving to two education systems. A rich education system and a poor education system. If you go to the rich education system, you'll get the best education in the world. If you go to the poorer education system, you can't compete with a Third World nation.

You go to one rich education system, first grade, you walk in, they put you on the Internet. You walk to the poor side of school, you can't even get a basketball net. You go to school in the rich district, they'll sit you down with a Pentium processor.

Talk to countries all across the globe. You go to the poorer school, the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector you walk through on the way to the classroom. That is not America. That is not an education for all. That has to be solved. That has to be solved now.

That's why President Clinton said, I want more schools, more classes, more teachers. Get that staffing to one teacher for 18 students so they can learn. We can do that by investing. We have to do it. We have to do it now. Education, education, education. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

You want to talk about welfare reform? You signed welfare reform three years ago in this town. It was a big success. Beat your chest. We solved welfare. You solved nothing.

First of all, nobody ever wanted to be on a welfare check. I've been all over this nation. Nobody ever once came up to me and said, Mr. Cuomo, do me a favor. Can you help me get a welfare check?

Mr. Cuomo, help me get a job. Help me get education. Help me get day care. Help me get transportation. Help me get health care. Help me become something with myself. Help me have the pride and dignity of earning my own bread. I want my children to see me leave the house everyday and do well and have a career and succeed. Help me get a job. But where are the jobs?

Help me get housing. That's where it all starts. That's where my family's together. I can't go anywhere until we're together and we're safe. Help me get housing. You know how many units of affordable housing we produce now per year? New units of affordable housing. Zero. You know how many people need it? 5.3 million. More families than ever before in the history of the nation.

We need education. We need jobs. We need housing. We need an opportunity agenda to reach out to the people who have been left behind.

There are no more excuses. We can't say, well, we don't have money to do that. We did that in the '80s and the early part of the '90s. Oh, we'd love to do that. We'd love to help. But see, government doesn't have any money. You know, it's the deficit.

Remember the deficit? Whenever you had a good idea, they had the deficit. Whenever you needed funding, they had the deficit. Whenever you needed a new program, they had the deficit. We have to pay off the deficit. We can't help you get housing because we have to pay off the deficit. We can't provide day care because we have to pay off the deficit. We can't help you get a job because we have to pay off the deficit.

Well, you paid off the deficit. God bless President Clinton. When he took office, the deficit had eleven zeros. Now it's just zero. The excuse is gone. Now let's get back to work and let's invest in this nation. No excuses.

The nation is doing so well the Congress wants to talk about a tax cut for the very rich. Forget the tax cut for the very rich and let's talk about education and jobs and housing for the people who want to be rich. Isn't that fair? Isn't that justice?

The second piece that we have to work on together, if number one is the opportunity agenda, number two is enforce the laws, enforce the laws. We have the laws on the books.

Martin Luther King, Jr. died and we had the fair housing laws passed one week after his death inspired by him. Let us now have the courage as a nation just to enforce the law like we do for everyone else. We have equal opportunity laws. Let's enforce the laws. Put our muscle behind our intent and our rhetoric. Enforce the laws. That's what we have to be working on together and that's what this partnership is going to be all about.

When people say 'Why should we do that for African Americans? Why should we do that for Hispanic Americans?' You say 'We're not doing it for African Americans. We're not doing it for Hispanic Americans. We're not doing it for Italian Americans or Jewish Americans. We're doing it for all Americans.'

Because that's what this nation was all about. Opportunity for all. Once you lose that, you lose everything. The nation will not stand without that. The founding fathers said 'E pluribus unum.' One out of many. You lose that premise, we're all gone.

This nation is going to be a majority minority in 20 years. Majority minority. Whites will not be a majority. It's going to be red and black and brown and yellow and if we can't live together, we certainly will come apart.

That's what we have to work on together. It is going to happen, I can feel it. It's going to be in this room. It's with this leadership. It's with this board of directors because you have all the elements. The right intent, the right drive and the new intelligence and the new tools.

You have the energy and the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. You have the outrage of Fannie Lou Hamer. You have the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall. You have the conviction of Medgar Evers.

But you also have the tools and the information and the technology of the '90s. That is the winning formula. That is the new synthesis that the SCLC and Martin Luther King, III represent. That passion, that fire, that drive of the '60s and the knowledge of the '90s to compete in this new world.

You have a friend and a partner in President Clinton. You have a federal administration committed to putting out their hand and arm in arm we will solve this once and for all. Thank you for having me.

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Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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