Ken Mehlman remarks at NAACP National Convention
Milwaukee, WI – RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman delivered remarks before the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in July, 2005. The following is the complete text of Chairman Mehlman’s speech as prepared for delivery.
CHAIRMAN KEN MEHLMAN: Chairman Bond, thank you for the invitation. First, let me extend my heartfelt congratulations to your new President. I not only look forward to working with President Gordon, but to rebuilding the historic relationship between the NAACP and the Republican Party. Bruce and I have already spent some time together and I hope we will be able to work on many issues in the coming weeks and months and years.
Having grown up in Baltimore, I also want to recognize a neighbor. Kweisi Mfume was a strong advocate as a Baltimore Congressman and leader of the NAACP. While my choice for Maryland’s U.S. Senate seat is Lt. Governor Michael Steele—and this national chairman will try to move heaven and earth to see that he gets the nomination and is elected—I think Maryland and our nation could do a lot worse than a contest between Michael and Kweisi.
Indeed, Maryland has come a long way to where two well-qualified and respected African American leaders have a legitimate and historic opportunity to become a United States Senator!
Today’s appearance is important to me on a personal level. Just a few weeks ago, we buried my grandfather, Joseph Mehlman. There are many reasons that I am so proud of my grandfather’s life: he grew up poor on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore, just around the corner from the New Albert Theatre, where he and his friends from the neighborhood used to sneak in to catch performances by Cab Calloway and the other great entertainers of the day. He built a middle class life for his family, had a great sense of humor, and always thought of his friends and family first, and himself second.
As a young man Joe Mehlman joined the NAACP and maintained his membership for much of his life. He wasn’t a hero like some of you in this room. He didn’t give speeches and he wasn’t a leader in the community. But the fact that this ordinary grocer from West Baltimore, a man without advanced education, who hadn’t traveled more than 300 miles from Baltimore, would– as a young person and before the civil rights movement attracted so many supporters across the country—join the NAACP speaks volumes about the moral clarity of your purpose and the fundamental decency and fairness that you inspired in so many.
Today Joe Mehlman’s grandson is proud to be chairman of the party of Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass—and of Michael Steele, Colin Powell, Michael Williams, and so many others. As Chairman of that party, I want to speak to you from the heart today, and share a message that I deliver everywhere I go: no matter how many elections Republicans win, no matter how many times we hold the White House, no matter how many seats in Congress, how many governor’s mansions, how many state legislatures we win, the party of Lincoln will not be whole again and won’t truly reflect the dream of African American political empowerment until we effectively and forthrightly respond to the cause of the African American community.
The party of Lincoln and the African American community have a proud history together.
Our party was founded to eliminate slavery, and our first Republican President was Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator.
It was the Republican Party that led the effort to pass the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
We spearheaded the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which recognized that education and opportunity and property ownership were all essential to the American Dream.
It was a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, shocking official Washington at the time.
It was another Republican president, Dwight David Eisenhower, who sent the 101st airborne to integrate a school in Little Rock, while a Democratic governor blocked the schoolhouse door.
It was the partnership and hard work of Clarence Mitchell, lobbyist for the NAACP and Republican Senator Everett Dirksen that led to higher percentage of Republicans in the U.S. House and Senate voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 than did Democrats.
And it is George W. Bush, a Republican president, who has appointed more minorities to top positions than any president in American history; who has tripled the funds we provide to relieve AIDS in Africa; and who has an agenda to spread equal opportunity in America and freedom around the world, building on the legal equality and Civil Rights Legacy that everyone in this room fought for.
The history of the other party is a different one. Democrats were the party of Jim Crow and Democratic filibusters blocked progress for decades.
Despite this history, the Democratic Party by the 1960s had something real and tangible to overcome this legacy. Lyndon Johnson, a Democratic President, signed what in my opinion were the most important laws of the 20th century: the civil rights act, voting rights act, open housing law.
By the 70s and into the 80s and 90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out.
Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican Chairman to tell you we were wrong.
But if my party benefited from racial polarization in the past, it is the Democratic Party that benefits from it today.
I know it is not in my interest as chairman of the Republican Party for close to 90% of African-Americans to vote for the Democrat every election. But more important, it’s not in the interest of African-Americans for 90% to vote for the Democrat every election.
And it’s not healthy for the country for our political parties to be so racially polarized.
African-American voters should have the benefit of a two-party system. In recent years, the Democratic Party, in my judgment, has come to take many African American voters for granted.
Just as the Democrats came to this community in 1964 with something real to offer, today we Republicans have something that should cause you to take another look at the party of Lincoln.
Just last month, Bruce Gordon talked about a wider vision of civil rights. “We’ve got to get the right emphasis placed on economic equality,” he said. “I happen to think that when you have economic stability and equality that often becomes an enabler for social equality.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The next step in civil rights is to build on equal treatment under the law to ensure equal opportunity to pursue the American Dream — equal opportunity in education, equal opportunity in where you live, equal opportunity in making a living, equal opportunity for a secure retirement.
To all Americans who want equal opportunity in America, give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice.
If you want better schools for your children, give us a chance and we’ll give you a choice in education:
Education is the great equalizer in America, ensuring that here, your aspirations matter more than your origins.
In 2000, one out of four white children, close to 60 percent of Latino students, and two thirds of African Americans fourth graders were unable to read at the 4th grade level.
Too many children were being socially promoted through the system, passed along from grade to grade even when they didn’t meet the standards.
The President has called this the soft bigotry of low expectations.
President Bush signed the most comprehensive education reform in 40 years, guaranteeing the equal opportunity of high standards and accountability to every child.
He increased funding in education more in his first four years than Bill Clinton did in his entire eight-year term.
But more money is just the beginning.
For the sake of every child, we’ve also reformed the system to guarantee high standards and accountability.
Educational success is now measured for every child, every year in every school.
If children are learning, the school receives praise.
And for children who are not learning, these reforms provide special help for the students, and charters and choice for the parents.
The results have been real
In reading, the achievement gap between African American and white students, has declined in 16 of 24 states studies as a result of higher African American test scores.
In math, the gap narrowed in 17.
And the President is not content to stop with high school.
He has requested $299 Million in funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities in his FY 2006 Budget.
If enacted, that number would represent a 30 percent increase in funding since 2001.
Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice to help Americans in need by empowering faith-based and community institutions.
It always amazes me to hear liberals denying that faith should have a place in the public square. So many seem to forget that the organization Martin Luther King led was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The history of this great institution and of the civil rights movement is indelibly linked with our churches and synagogues.
That was one of the things that made the civil rights movement so unique, so unlike anything we have ever seen in this country before or since, or even today.
Today, we need those houses of faith more than ever.
In so many communities, churches, synagogues, mosques, and other faith based organizations often offer the most compassionate help to those in need because they recognize that sometimes folks need more than just food for their stomach.
They need nourishment for the soul. Our faith-based initiatives make sure these important providers are available to those in need.
Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice to own your own home:
Forty years ago, Congress passed Open Housing legislation that ended housing discrimination.
Today, we need more minorities to own their own home.
The President’s plan has already created 2.3 million new minority homeowners since he was elected.
Just this past quarter, minority home ownership in America reached an all time high.
But he is not content to rest there.
He has pledged to help create 5.5 million minority homeowners by 2010, so that the gap between minority and non-minority home ownership will be gone forever.
Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice to own your own business.
Now that the lunch counter is integrated, we need more minorities to own the restaurant, and the hotel, and the high tech firm, the law firms, in the boardrooms, on the courts, and as university professors.
Give us a chance, and we’ll give you a choice to save for your retirement.
Forty percent of African American seniors live entirely on their Social Security check because they never had the chance to set aside a nest egg and save for their retirement.
Why? Because family needs consumed their whole paycheck.
For workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck and can never get ahead, an IRA or 401K plan is not a realistic choice.
President Bush will modernize Social Security for today’s generation and for the future, helping those most in need.
But that’s just the beginning.
President Bush will also ensure that these hard working Americans have a second check as well when they retire.
A personal retirement account would allow these families to get ahead, to set aside a nest egg for their own retirement while still paying for immediate family needs.
Providing equal access to the American Dream is not the only matter where we can work together.
This President is committed to equal justice under the law, which is why he’s expanding funding for the use of DNA evidence and for additional training for defense counsel, prosecutors, and judges.
Under Alberto Gonzales’ leadership, this Administration will protect the voting rights of all Americans through the strictest enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. As Congress re-authorizes this important law, the party of Lincoln welcomes your thoughts and advice for continuing to ensure that we protect every single American’s fundamental right to vote.
This President is also committed to compassion overseas, where President Bush has committed more to African aid than any other administration in history, including $674 million announced just last month, along with debt relief and help in the fight against malaria.
All of these reasons are why, in the cycle of politics, the Republican Party and African-American voters have come to a point in time where there is a common interest in renewing our historic bonds.
Already we’re seeing a change. In the last election, President Bush won 70% more African American votes than in 2000. We nearly doubled our African American support in Florida and Ohio, and more than doubled it in Pennsylvania.
And we’re not close to being satisfied. While it’s still early, 2006 is shaping up to be an historic year. Already, 7 African American men and women are looking hard at running for statewide office as Republicans: 2 for U.S. Senate in Maryland and Michigan, 2 for governor in Ohio and Pennsylvania; the Treasurer in Ohio, Auditor of Vermont and Supreme Court Justice of Texas are all African American Republicans likely to seek re-election in 2006. If 1992 was the year of the woman, 2006 could be the year of the African American Republican.
It’s more than just words, and more than outreach. Republicans are committed to inclusion. Outreach is when you show up to ask for the vote 4 weeks before the election. I’m here 4 years before the next presidential election asking for your help. Inclusion means you work together to recruit candidates, not surrogates to speak on their behalf. Inclusion means great minds like Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Rod Paige, and Al Jackson write the policy, not just sell it. Inclusion is why this RNC Chairman has more than 100 men and women who serve on our African American Advisory Committee to develop the message, not just deliver it. And inclusion is why I’m trying to spend more time listening and learning than talking.
This message — give us a chance and we’ll give you a choice—should sound familiar. It’s the same theme that 50 years ago inspired decent Americans like Joe Mehlman to support the work of the NAACP. We’re not asking for folks to embrace all of our policies or to vote for all of our candidates. We’re not asking for agreement on everything or endorsement of our platform. All we’re asking for is a fair hearing, the chance to make our case, the benefit of the doubt that we’re sincere in wanting to renew our historic bonds.
Renewing our common bonds is important for the African American community. As my law school classmate and friend and now Senator Barak Obama says, there’s a reason that the farmers usually get what they want in politics. All Americans – white, black, Asian, Hispanic – are better served by having two parties competing for their attention and their support.
The NAACP is too important, your mission too urgent, to be identified with one political party. As we go forward, let’s talk more, and look for more opportunities where we can work together. And when we do disagree—and we will—let’s remember our proud past and what we can accomplish when we work together.
I draw tremendous hope and inspiration in the story of the civil rights movement…in its leaders…its values…its achievements. It’s so fascinating to me that the leaders of the American civil rights movement drew so much strength and courage from the Old Testament.
The prophets of the civil rights movement had much in common with the prophets of the Old Testament. They worried about the country they loved…they sought freedom and justice…and they spoke truth to power.
On March 25, 1968, ten days before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the 68th Annual Convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. King opened by saying that it was a beautiful thing to hear We Shall Overcome sung in Hebrew. And as he often did, he quoted one of his favorite Prophets from the Old Testament, Amos: “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Fifteen days later, Ralph Abernathy turned to another giant figure from the Old Testament when eulogizing his friend. Quoting the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis, Abernarthy said: “Let us slay the dreamer and see what becomes of his dream.”
Today, the work to uphold the dream continues. Dr. King said the “goal of America is freedom.” Have we reached that goal? Have we achieved the dream? Like the Old Testament prophets, Dr. King didn’t live to see it…but I believe we will eventually expand the circle of freedom to reach every American…in every corner of America…at every stage of life…with every means available.