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Secretary Andrew Cuomo's Remarks
at the Dedication Ceremony for the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building

Washington DC
Tuesday, July 11, 2000

Good morning. You'll have to excuse me if I speak relatively quickly today, but I'm going to for two reasons. First, I want to get my words in before the raindrops fall, and we have a number of people on the program. And secondly, in the tradition of Secretary Weaver, I am a New Yorker, and we always talk fast when we're from New York.

I want to thank, first, all the people who worked long and hard to make this possible, and this worked on many levels. We have the Honorary Committee, who worked to make it possible; we have Ben Johnson in the White House and Thurgood Marshall Jr. in the White House who made this happen today; we have the HUD team who made it happen today; and we have Mary Burke Washington, who was a one-woman dynamo, who refused to stop -- who would not stop until this happened. And we have the two Congressional champions, who carried the torch and who passed the legislation: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Congressman Charles Rangel.

I'd also like to welcome here today my colleague in the President's cabinet, Donna Shalala. I'd like to welcome Secretary Robert Wood, who you will hear from; former Senator Ed Brooke of Massachusetts; another colleague, David Barram, the Administrator of the General Services Administration, who worked to get the plaza finished so we could have this event outside. And I'd like to introduce all the Congressional members who are here today.

Secretary Weaver did what most of us will never do. Secretary Weaver was a first, a first in many ways. He was the first African-American cabinet member in the State of New York. He was the first African-American cabinet member in the Federal cabinet, in the President's cabinet. And he was the first Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And when you are a first, by definition, you go someplace that no one has gone before. No one can explain to you what it's going to be like. You are literally breaking new ground. And he did.

Whether you're the first man to walk on the moon, or the first African-American to play baseball, or the first African-American woman not to go to the back of the bus, or the first African-American student to step over the threshold and go into a high school in Arkansas, you are going where no one went before, and it takes a special breed of courage.

That's what Secretary Weaver brought to us. It was not easy, not from the get-go, not from when he grew up in segregated housing, not when he had to go through the Senate confirmation process. What caused opposition to his nomination was the fact that he was the Chairman of the NAACP.

Senator Blakley, in that confirmation hearing, said, "Dr. Weaver, wouldn't you agree with the viewpoint as expressed that the NAACP is controversial?"

And Dr. Weaver said back, "I do not think equality of opportunity is controversial, Senator." Not in this country, America. And he was right.

He went on to start an entirely new journey of firsts. He worked for passage of the 1961 low-income rental housing program, the first piece of legislation passed by President John F. Kennedy's administration. He championed the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which broke new ground. He was the first to say that if we're going to deal with cities, we must deal with them comprehensively. He talked about housing in a larger tapestry of need, putting housing together with economic development, together with transportation, in what we would now call holistic development, but he was there first.

And 35 years later, the journey that Secretary Weaver began still is very much alive. He started the first low-income rental program. But today we have more people who need affordable housing than at any time in our history. Just think of it: 5.4 million people need affordable housing today, more than when Secretary Weaver was the first secretary of the Department. We have waiting lists for public housing in this nation that are years long.

Secretary Weaver said we have to fight poverty. Why? Because one out seven children lived in poverty at that time. And he said that was inexcusable. Today, it's one out of five children living in poverty. It hasn't gotten better, it's gotten worse.

Secretary Weaver championed the 1968 Fair Housing laws to end discrimination. One month ago, this department sued the Ku Klux Klan in Pennsylvania and its Grand Dragon in Pennsylvania for harassing an interracial couple. The woman being harassed had the added audacity of championing the Fair Housing laws.

Just last week, Reverend Jesse Jackson went to Mississippi to bring attention to a case of a young man named Raynard Johnson who was found hung in his front yard, hanging from a pecan tree, and the authorities want to say it was a suicide.

And we have other complications to the journey as well. We have other divides that threaten to pull us apart. We have digital divides, with the information superhighway, which is great if you're on it, but if you're left standing on the shoulder, it will leave you behind at 100 miles an hour. We have new spatial divides between cities and suburbs. We have educational divides between a very sophisticated private education system and a public education system that is failing too many.

Most important, in my opinion, Secretary Weaver set the tone for HUD. And he said, as the first Secretary of HUD, that this Department is different than any other. With all due respect to my other colleagues, this is not like the other cabinet departments, because this is not just about running programs, and issuing regulations. That's not what HUD is about.

It's about a basic crusade for basic justice. This department is a political statement, by its very existence. It says we have more to do as a nation, and it speaks to issues on which many people would rather be silent.

Now, this department, if you had to name it, would not be the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It would be the Department of Justice, in my opinion. That was really the track that Secretary Weaver set.

Now, you say, there is already a Department of Justice; that's what Attorney General Janet Reno runs. That's a form of justice. That should really be the Department of Criminal Justice.

But this department is the department of a different type of justice and, I would suggest, a more profound type of justice:

The Department of Economic Justice which President Johnson spoke about, when he formed this department, that said you're not a success economically as a nation because you have more millionaires than ever before, when you have the highest income inequality in history, and children in poverty.

A Department of Social Justice, which Bobby Kennedy talked about, that said, I don't care that your home ownership rate is 67 percent: You still have 600,000 homeless Americans. And we believe in the concept of community, and you're really a success when you're socially just.

And the Department of Racial Justice: Martin Luther King's wisdom that said we either live together as brothers, or we perish together as fools.

That is what this department does. That's what this mandate is. And Secretary Weaver said, you stand up, and you have your voice heard, loud and clear, because you speak for millions in this nation without a voice. And you fight that fight, and you carry that banner, because if the HUD Secretary isn't doing it, if the Department of Housing and Urban Development isn't doing it, then no one is.

That's the big shadow that Secretary Weaver left for all the other eleven HUD secretaries to follow. He left big footsteps indeed. I, for one, am honored -- am honored -- to follow in those footsteps. And I only hope that I do my job half as well as Secretary Weaver did his.

Thank you for enjoying this celebration with us today.

Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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