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Black Republican Party chair Steele jokes with NAACP about his party

July 14, 2009 |  4:44 pm
Michael Steele chairman of the Republican National Committee

The headline on this item could have been: "Black Republican Party chair jokes with NAACP about his party." Oh, wait that was the headline.

Michael Steele, the first African American head of the party of Lincoln, today went before the NAACP convention in New York City, where GOP leaders have often received a cool, skeptical and generally useless reception.

Steele's message in this first year of his term and the first year of the term of the first African American president was delivered differently. He made fun of himself, of the old party pitches. And he got some laughs and applause. Some silent faces. And likely some more skepticism.

Steele made the pitch that his party and the civil rights organization should become close allies. It's a long road back for Republicans with African Americans, but Steels vows to give it another try. Here's what he told the historic group today.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Remarks by Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, to the NAACP, July 14, 2009:

Thank you for that warm welcome.  I would like to thank the NAACP board of directors and Chairman Julian Bond for having me here to speak with you today.  Also, President Jealous, Vice Chairman Roslyn M. Brock, and Assistant Treasurer Jesse Turner. Jr.

President Jealous and Vice Chairman Brock, I thank you for your willingness to seek out advocates in all circles.  We are all interested in the educational, economic, political and social wealth of our community.  I thank the board for their passion and dedication to serving the disadvantaged among us, for breaking down barriers and standing as leaders.

As a proud member of the Prince George's county chapter of the NAACP, I am honored to be here to celebrate 100 years.

The NAACP was born to fight for freedom, liberty, opportunity and fairness.  Its founders were a group of brave visionaries from varying backgrounds, including black and white Republican men and....

...women.  Perhaps the most prominent African-American Republican of the group was James Weldon Johnson, the co-author of “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing.”  Such a proud institution with an incredibly rich legacy.

I am proud to be here as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee and on behalf of the RNC I bring you the warmest of greetings and congratulations!

I’ve been looking forward to this day for some time. It is for me, a particular honor to bring greetings in this 100th year. I spent some time looking at previous remarks by Republicans before this body and I was struck by the litany of phrases that republicans often cut and paste into a speech to this organization.  “Party of Lincoln”   four or five times ... Reminders that Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican, and he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House … and the civil rights act was passed by a Republican congress over Democrat filibusters … oh, and one of my favorites, Bull Connor was a Democrat.

I decided instead, that today I would depart from “the complete Republican’s guide to speaking to African-Americans.”

Let me begin with something I read the other day – a look at the statistical averages of black babies versus whites:“The black baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the nation in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day . . . One-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man . . . Twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospect of earning only half as much.”

That is not a pretty picture. But here’s the really heart wrenching point: those words were spoken by President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Nearly all of what we think of as “the civil rights era” has taken place since JFK gave that speech. And in that time, a lot of progress has been made in both the political and the cultural arenas. Many of you in this room have been the authors of that progress and many others of you have witnessed it.

Indeed, not far from the steps on which I was inaugurated the first African-American Lt. Governor of Maryland in 2002, Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery over 150 years ago. Moreover, not far from the very steps on which Barack Obama was inaugurated the nation’s first African-American president, black men and women could not drink from the same water fountain as whites.

But our standing on those steps was not just a testament to progress, but also a challenge to the idea that we have completed the journey.

As far as we’ve come since 1963, the amount of progress that has been made, while impressive, leaves us empty in the face of incarceration rates, unemployment rates, drop-out rates, aids infection rates, and the general rate of poverty for African-Americans.

For 46 years of these 100 years, we have carried a lot of water for others. And yet, the long odds faced by our children have changed very little.  So it is time we start to carry that water for ourselves; or we will continue to fail our community, our children, and our ability to build legacy.

At the dawning of this century, most of the problems facing black America are rooted in diminished access to quality education and fewer and fewer opportunities to either work a job or own a business. On these points, a one-party agenda often fails to get the job done.

My friends, educational and economic upward mobility are the root source of empowerment, ownership and opportunity.  You undermine those and you guarantee preservation of the status quo.  But you and I know our legacy has never been about status quo — remember Attucks, Tubman, Douglass, Booker t., Dubois, Malcolm, Parks, King and so many others including those who founded this venerable organization.
We are the post-civil rights generation of African-Americans and for us the battle for civil rights in the latter half of the twentieth century has become a struggle for economic and educational opportunity at the dawning of this century.

Thurgood Marshall once said, “None of us has gotten where we are solely by pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps. We got here because somebody bent down and helped us.”

My purpose for coming here today, is simply to tell you face to face, that you are not alone in that struggle. The Republican Party, which has shared an inextricable link to the African-American community, has a way forward.

The Republican Party is prepared to bend down every day to help; but, we will do so with a different perspective—a 21st century perspective that pursues policies and advances principles that turns the hope of economic liberty and empowerment into action.  True freedom is ill-served by diminishing educational choices, choking off entrepreneurial spirit, and empowering government more than the people.

As Chairman of the Republican National Committee, I recognize the efforts it took to get a seat at the lunch counter, but I also know what it will take for this and future generations to own the diner. So, I have come here today not only to bring greetings, but also to renew our relationship with the NAACP and the African-American community.

And I do this with a sense of purpose and not cliché because the GOP and NAACP have very often missed real opportunities to communicate and engage each other. Indeed, for the GOP and the NAACP “outreach” should mean more than a speech here and a pat on the back there. Genuine outreach must establish a relationship on common ground and build a partnership that will benefit all concerned.

So to that end, I have already reoriented the RNC away from “doing outreach” and towards building coalitions instead — moving beyond its comfort zone to create a relationship with diverse communities and constituencies. My goal: to advance freedom in the African-American community.

As the African-American middle class emerges and grows, the Republican Party wants to be a partner who works with you to put in place the tools necessary to sustain that growth and to bring out of poverty those so often left behind. I thank you for the opportunity to explain how my party is committed to continuing in that cause.  And I thank you for your kind attention here today.

Certainly my visit here today does not represent some miraculous breakthrough in GOP-NAACP relations. This is the first baby step in many more baby steps to come. After all, we all know that old loyalties and attitudes die hard. But the question is, if the GOP is willing to take those steps, will the NAACP be willing to do the same?

As you start your second century, now is an opportune time for both the NAACP and Republicans to take hold of their political destinies and step together into a new partnership.

Think about it this way: if a black man can become chairman of the Republican National Committee, then anything is possible.

Congratulations; and may God continue his blessings upon your work.   ###

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Photo: Associated Press
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