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Remarks to the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., in New Orleans, Louisiana

September 09, 1994

If I could sing like that, I would have never gotten into politics. [Laughter and applause] Reverend Jemison; your president-elect, Dr. Lyons; to Dr. Richardson, Reverend James, Dr. Mary Ross; to all the distinguished Louisianians here present, including Reverend Governor Edwards—I thought he did very well today—Senator Breaux and Congressman Jefferson and Mayor Morial and all your State officials and legislators; Reverend Jackson; to all the members of my staff and Cabinet who are here— where are the people here with the administration? They're all here somewhere.

I want to say many things, but first we have a duty, I think, as Americans to take a moment of silence now for the 131 people who were killed in that awful air crash in Pittsburgh. Hillary and I send our deepest sympathies and our prayers to the friends and the loved ones of the crash victims. And I know that all of you and all Americans also send your prayers to the grieving.

Our Secretary of Transportation, Secretary Pena, is there in Pittsburgh. I have talked with the mayor and the Governor this morning and with Senator Wofford. All Americans should know that we will do whatever we can to assure their safety in travel. But let us today, in the painful recognition of our fallibility as human beings, mourn with a moment of silence those who lost their lives.


Well, Dr. Jemison, I thank you for that warm introduction. I have known you as a friend for a long time. When we were standing outside, about to come up, he was reviewing his more than 50 years in the leadership of this great church. That's a long time, worthy of honor, and I give it.

Two years ago I had a great moment with all of you in Atlanta when I was running for President. And last year I was invited to appear, and I couldn't. I had to give my regrets. I sort of felt like the boy who skipped Sunday school. [Laughter] I promised Dr. Jemison I'd be here this year no matter what, so I showed up, and I hope you have forgiven me because I feel at home.

Two years ago I came to you, and you responded. I asked you to work with me to give us at least a chance to change the direction our country was headed in. We had too much debt and too few jobs. We seemed to be going in the wrong direction, where ordinary Americans were ignored and people with money and organized power were heeded, but somehow the thing was not working. As the Vice President used to say, "What ought to be up was down, and what ought to be down was up." And that was a problem. I wanted a chance to try to move this country forward again and to try to pull our country together again.

Today, having served now for not quite 2 years, I guess what I want to say to you is I think we're doing a pretty good job of moving forward but not nearly a good enough job of coming together.

I have here in the front some of my friends and former employers from the State of Arkansas. Would you all stand up? Thank you and bless you for being here.

I lived in a little State to the north of here for a while, you know. And I learned that it was not healthy to say one thing to one group and one to another. You had to say the same thing to everybody and mean it every day.

I never will forget when I was running for President, one of the most memorable days I had was speaking on one day of the weekend in Macomb County, Michigan, the prototypical, what they used to call "Reagan Democrat county," where there was a lot of what they used to call "white flight." And then the next day I went to a black church in Detroit where half the people were from Arkansas. And I gave the same speech I had given the day before, and people thought that was strange. And I said, "Is it so strange that we should say the same thing to all Americans and try to come together?"

I want to talk to you today about that. I still believe what I believed 2 years ago, that the Government has a role to play in the future of this country and the future of our families and our hopes and our dreams, not as savior but not on the sidelines, just as a partner in progress. I still believe that, together, we can meet every challenge, that we can fulfill the hopes of our children. I still believe there are a lot of things we have to do that go way beyond the reach of Government into the depths of the human spirit.

Today I say to you again, I think we're making a lot of progress, and I feel good about that. But I don't think we're doing as well as we should in coming together. And I don't feel good about that, and I want to examine that and what I could do better and what you can do better.

I noticed a columnist wrote the other day in the newspaper, he said, "There's lots of things going right in this country. The economy is booming. We've got over 4 million new jobs. The stock market is up. The deficit is down. Things look good in the future. Our country was just rated the most productive country in the entire world for the first time in nearly 10 years." We've got over 4 million new jobs, as I said, the unemployment rate is down. A lot of things are going well.

We see around the world real progress: peace in the Middle East, in the Holy Land, something that should gladden the heart of every Christian. We see peace prospects are moving forward in Northern Ireland, something many of us thought we would never see. We see the majesty of peace and democracy and freedom unfolding in South Africa. And I want to thank Reverend Jackson for his leadership of our election team over there in South Africa, during that process.

And, so the writer said—he was writing about me—he said, "If things are going so well, why are people still mad at the President?" Well, what he might have said is, you remember that old saying, "If I'm so rich, why am I not happy?" [Laughter]

Well, there are a lot of reasons for that. But let me offer one. I just got back from vacation, and when I was on vacation, I went to church and I heard a minister I'd never seen before from a little town in New Jersey called Red Bank. You know where Red Bank, New Jersey is? [Applause]

The first thing he did was give us dispensation for being on vacation, which I felt good about. He said, "Life is not all work. It is also play and rest and worship." But he went on to say, it's not only important to do all those things but to get them right. And if you don't have faith, you won't have the rhythm right. You will find yourselves working at play and playing at worship, and you'll have it all messed up.

Well, that's kind of what's going on in our country today. We still haven't quite got the rhythm right. So that even though we are facing a lot of our most profound problems and even though we are clearly making progress in areas too long ignored, which many of you have mentioned here, we have to say: What is the real deal here? Why aren't we happier about it?

There are many reasons, but let me offer three. One is, whenever periods of profound change occur in the lives of individuals or nations, they are unsettling. Isn't that right? Can't you think of times in your own life when you were making a change, and every day you woke up and it was like there was this scale inside your body. And on one side of the scale was hope, and on the other side of the scale was fear, and it seemed like every day, the scales would be in a little bit different balance until you finally got through this change you were going through.

We can all identify with that. That's what's going on in this country today. It's happened before. At the end of the First World War, we won this great battle, and we didn't know what to do with ourselves, and so we just came home and folded up our tents. We thought we could withdraw from the world. And what happened? That's when the Ku Klux Klan first started rising up. At the end of the First World War, when we lost our concentration, and we lost our way, and we didn't know who the enemy was anymore. It's also when we had the first Red Scare, when everybody began to be accused of being a Communist if they had unconventional opinions.

Then, at the end of the Second World War, the same sort of thing happened, except we knew better than to withdraw from the world. Harry Truman said, "No, no, we're going to rebuild the country here at home for the soldiers and their families, and we're going to rebuild our enemies, Germany and Japan, and our Allies in Europe. And we know who the enemy is. It's the Soviet Union and communism. So we're going to have a great wall against communism, and we're going to fight this cold war."

But still, there was uncertainty. There was a new Red Scare, which came to its height under Senator McCarthy. And Harry Truman had a hard time getting people to change. You know, he was at 80 percent approval in the polls after he dropped the bomb which ended the war, but by the time he sent the second health reform legislation to Congress—that's how long we've been trying to fix the health care system—by the time Harry Truman did it the second time, he was down to 36 percent in the polls. Now, everybody talks about him like he ought to be on Mount Rushmore. [Laughter] But I was for a family who supported him when he was living, and I know what happened.

Change is difficult. And when you're going through a period of change, we are vulnerable to getting out of our rhythm.

The second problem is, we live in a time which almost seems to glorify the negative, the cynical, don't we? [Applause] It's the old story. There's a lot more people prone to see the glass of water is half empty than half full than there used to be, and to tell all the rest of us we're just fools if we see it half full; it's really half empty.

And then, frankly, let's face it: We still have some problems that are real deep in this country that all the progress we're making does not necessarily touch. We have 4.1 million new jobs. The work force is expanding more rapidly than it did 10 years ago, the last time we had any kind of economic recovery, but lots of folks still out of work. A lot of folks live in places where they don't believe new jobs are coming. A lot of people are working harder; they have their job, but they don't think they'll ever get a raise. Five million, five million people live in working families who had health insurance 5 years ago, who do not have it today.

So we have some real problems. Governor Edwards alluded to the most heart-breaking of all, those that involve the children of this country, their sins and their abuses and their loss of their childhood and their innocence, and our loss of their future: The 11-year-old boy in Chicago, Robert Sandifer, who sprayed gunfire at a group of kids and killed a 14-year-old girl and then was killed himself, his grandmother saying, "I could not reach you." And then in New Jersey, the 13-year-old who stole a gun to end a petty argument and the life of his 11-year-old friend. In Detroit, Rosa Parks was attacked by a crack addict for $53. In my hometown, an 82-year-old woman, attacked by two teenagers, brutalized and sexually molested—82 years old.

These aren't Baptist problems or Catholic problems or Jewish problems. Contrary to what some people say, they're not black or white problems. No, the 11-year-old in Chicago was black, but the teenager in New Jersey who killed and the victim were both white. Rosa Parks is a hero to African-Americans and a hero to people who have been oppressed throughout the world, but the 82-year-old woman in my hometown was a white lady, and so were the people who attacked her.

These problems and the problems behind them that brought the children to the miserable point in life where they did what they did, these are the things that are gnawing at our spirit that we have to address so we can get the rhythm right, we can go on and face the challenges of this time, all the changes. And we can make change our friend if we know that we are grounded. That is what your faith is about. But it is also now what our citizenship must be more about.

I note that there are many voices from all sectors preaching to us today about the decline in our values. In a way I welcome them all. And whether they are traditionally our allies or our adversaries, we should listen for the truth of their words, and if they are true, we should heed them.

On the other hand, I would issue two cautionary notes: We should not let the voices of despair make our insecurities even deeper. That is wrong. That is wrong. There have always been problems in every society, and there will be until the end of time. That is the lesson of the Scripture. So for all the people who try to use the difficulties of the moment to dampen the energies of Americans, to defeat our spirits, I say, that is wrong. The Scripture says, "Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart."

The darkness of every storm provides a new chance for renewal, every storm. And so does this one. So to all those who preach that we need to return to the values of our faith, I say, we do. But the real issue is, what are we going to do about it? Not what are we going to say about it, but what are we going to do about it? The saying is important, for we in words come to visualize the future. And we need the vision so that we do not perish. But we must act on the vision. And that's where all the problems come.

You know the old story about the preacher who was preaching his best on Sunday morning and thought he had finally reached everybody in the service? And he said, "I want everybody who wants to go to heaven to stand up right now." And everybody in the whole church stood up except Sister Jones, who had not missed a day in church in 40 years. And he was crestfallen. It broke all his concentration. He stopped the sermon. He said, "Sister Jones, you have not missed a sermon in 40 years. Do you mean to tell me you do not want to go to heaven when you die?" And she popped right up, and she said, "Oh, I'm sorry, preacher, I thought you were trying to get up a load to go right now." [Laughter]

Now that's a big problem, isn't it? We all want to do it somewhere down the road, but if we have to do something right now, well that's something we better think about. So the challenge is, what are we going to do right now? Not later, but now, right now.

I say this to the people who always say the glass is half empty, always being pessimistic, always being negative. They have it easy. That lets you out of any responsibility at all. You adopt a pessimistic, negative attitude; you be cynical. It just relieves you of any responsibility for doing because then doing doesn't matter. Right? All I can tell you is, there would be no free Americans sitting in this place today if the pessimists and the cynics and the negative people had ruled this country all along the way.

Our obligation and our power flows out of two simple lessons I was taught about our whole civilization many years ago in college. One is that the future can be better than the present, not perfect but better. And the second is that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so. That is the simple lesson that will get our rhythm back, that will put us back in harmony, that will enable us to enjoy our progress and still keep working on the deep and profound things that are challenging us and dealing with the unsettling impact of this changing time.

My vision is that we will go into the 21st century as a country more free, more prosperous, more united, and more open to making change our friend than we have ever been.

Yes, we are beginning to see results. Yes, the economy is doing better. Yes, we are seeing more fairness as well as more progress. We did raise taxes on the wealthiest 1 1/2 percent of Americans to bring the deficit down, but we also gave tax cuts to 15 million working families just above the poverty line to say, "You got off welfare; you're working; we're going to reward you being a parent and a worker." We did that. We are making progress.

We got 180,000 more kids in Head Start. We're going to immunize a couple of million more children so that by 1996 all the kids 2 years of age and less, like this little kid here, will have their shots. We're doing more to provide job training for people who lose their jobs, and we made 20 million Americans eligible to refinance their college loans at lower interest rates with a longer repayment term. These things are important. They matter.

Work, the dignity of work is central to our ability to build a future. The second thing we have to do is not just talk about how we need stronger families but think about what I can do and you can do to make them stronger. We didn't cut taxes for those 15 million working families for just political reasons. We did it because people have got to be able to succeed today as workers and as parents. And if we want people to work and parent, we have to reward work. That's why the Family and Medical Leave Act was so important. How can you say you want people to be good family members and then fire them if they have to take a little time off to have a baby or take care of a sick parent?

There's a bill in the Congress I really believe in, sponsored by Senator Metzenbaum, to make adoptions easier and to make it possible for people to adopt children across racial lines if nobody else is there wanting to adopt the children. Don't leave kids in the limbo of foster care for years and years and years. Give them a chance to do it.

The third thing we have to do is to make our communities stronger. We have to act as if we believe what we talk about all the time, that we're all in this together. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is here today. Henry Cisneros has done more to come up with a program to end homelessness than anybody in the last 10 years. We've been talking about it. He's trying to do something about it. It makes us stronger as a community.

The welfare reform bill is about community, empowering everybody to participate. The enterprise zones are about giving poor communities the incentive to draw capital to put people to work. These things will make our communities stronger.

And the crime bill was about communities. Because if your streets aren't safe, if people don't feel secure, it's hard to call them to higher citizenship. What did Edwin Everett say, "If you've got the right to vote but you're scared to go to the polling place, it's hard to talk about citizenship." That's why it was important.

We're also trying to change the way Government works, reforming the way we finance our campaigns and try to at least tell you what the lobbyists are doing in Washington with new disclosure requirements, a bill that would make Congress live under all the laws it imposes on you. That's not a bad idea, I think. These things are important.

We're trying to prove something that I always believe, that you can have diversity and excellence at the same time. Look at our Cabinet: five African-Americans, more than twice as many as ever served; 15 percent of all appointments, more than twice as many appointments to the Federal courts as the last three Presidents combined are African-Americans. But what really ought to make you clap is that these judges have the highest percentage of "well-qualified" ratings by the American Bar Association since they have been giving out the ratings. They're not just from different racial groups and men and women; they're well-qualified.

So there are things that Government can do. This crime bill I want to talk about because it runs into the question of harmony. There are a lot of things the Government can't do, or there are things the Government can do, and it's still not enough. I know that crime bill wasn't perfect. And I know it imposed great, great challenges for the African-American Members of Congress and for many people and religious faiths because it contains capital punishment provisions. And many people oppose capital punishment for everyone, and many others say that African-Americans are more likely to get the penalty because poor folks are more likely than non-poor folks to be convicted and sentenced to death. I know that there are those who say that when we build more prisons and make sentences for repeat offenders longer and tougher, that will have a disproportionate impact on the African-American community.

But to that, I say this: Every time you look at the evening news, there's another funeral. And there's a disproportionate number of black kids lying in those pine boxes, too. And that's wrong. That's what's really wrong. And we have got to find a way, imperfect though it is, to get all the Americans together, with all their different perspectives, and move forward on this issue, because if people are not safe, we're in trouble.

And if we put the 100,000 police on the street and do it right, they'll prevent crime, not just catch criminals. If we get these assault weapons off the street—and it's now illegal for kids to own handguns—if we start enforcing that law, and if we do something with that prevention money, if we give these kids something to say yes to, if we do something with the job money, with the job training money, with the drug treatment money, with the recreation money, if we give people at that time of their lives when they've got all this energy some constructive outlet for it, it will make a difference.

But if you really want it, to lower the crime rate, reduce violence, and save more kids' lives, all the work is still to be done. All the work is still to be done. And it's like asking Sister Jones to go to heaven; we've got to do this right now. If we believe there is a crisis of the spirit, a crisis of values in this country, we have to do something about it right now. And we've got to do it where we live.

I would like to suggest just four simple things that go beyond Government programs. And you know them all, and many of you are doing them all. But every American can make a contribution. We are raising a whole generation of kids who aren't sure they're the most important person in the world to anybody.

Now, consider this: Today, about 40 percent of all children are born in the homes where there was never a marriage. Twenty-seven percent of all pregnancies end in abortion. I don't care what your position is, whether you're prochoice or anti-; that's too many. That's not about serious health problems or emotional problems. So when the miracle of conception occurs, less than half of those miracles wind up being babies born into homes where there's a mother and a father and where the kid's got a better-thaneven chance of having the life that most of us have, or we wouldn't be here in our neckties and nice dresses today. Now, that's just a fact.

Dr. King once said, "Whom we wish to change, we must first love." And I know not everybody is going to be in a stable, traditional family like you see in one of those 1950 sitcoms, but we'd be better off if more people were. I was raised by a wonderful mother who worked, who cared for me, who was a widow when I was born, went through a difficult marriage. And at least every now and then I find somebody who thinks I turned out all right, so it can happen. But we have to say, who is going to care for these children? In every single study that's ever been done of young people who did well against all the odds with terrible circumstances and all the things that could have gone wrong, it is always, always, always the case that they had a relationship with somebody who cared about them, somebody.

I don't think we ought to give up on families. Yesterday I met with a number of ministers. And one friend of mine who pastors a massive church in the Washington area, an African-American church, has made the mission of his church the rebuilding of the family. Over 40 percent of the members are male, and he left our breakfast to go back to meet with 150 couples who had split up or never married. Some of them were divorced. Sometimes people had flown in from thousands of miles away. He was trying to get them back together for the children's sake and because it was the right thing to do. We need to do more of that. But he's not just talking about it, he's doing something.

If that's not an option, then somebody's got to love these children. When I was in Des Moines, Iowa, in the campaign, I saw a white lady holding an African-American baby that had AIDS. She was from Iowa. The kid was from Miami. She had been abandoned by her husband. She had two children of her own. She was living in an apartment house, working at a meager job. She thought it was God's will that she take a child who was sick and abandoned. And she did it. If she could do it, a lot of the rest of us should as well.

Someone has got to care for these children. I've heard Reverend Jackson talk about this. I think about it all the time as my daughter grows up. We have to find—in families where the mother is doing all the work, then there needs to be somebody outside the family, a male figure, who can at least relate to children, who can say things like, "What are you reading?" and "How are you doing in class?" "This is right, and this is wrong." "I'd like to see your report card." "What do you want to do 5 years from now?"

You know, how many children do we know— how many children, how many of these kids that are shooting one another never think about 5 years from now? The future to them is 5 minutes from now. Why is that? Because no one is asking them about it. Where there is no vision, people perish. They cannot visualize 5 years from now. So that's the first thing.

The second thing we've got to do is help these kids at least grow up without fear, which means we've got to keep them from getting shot and stop them from shooting. And laws can help, and policemen can help, but every 2 hours in this country another kid under the age of 19 dies from gunfire. A 9-year-old boy wrote me from this city right here in New Orleans and said, "Please do something about this. I'm afraid I could get killed." And on Mother's Day, a month after he wrote me, he got killed just walking home from school.

Now, there are things people can do in their neighborhoods to stop this. We are giving you more tools in terms of the laws and the police, but we've got to have help. Schools can be made safer. Walking routes can be made safer. Use the crime bill funds—the churches are eligible to participate—and give kids something to do after school to get them off the street where they can be in recreation. I got so tired, when we were debating that crime bill, hearing people badmouth midnight basketball. I'd a lot rather have somebody shooting hoops than shooting bullets. But you have to make that work.

The third thing I would say is, we have to be more honest. Sometimes it is almost embarrassing, I know, but we've got to be more honest with our young people in teaching them to respect themselves, their bodies, their souls, and their futures. And we always talk about how irresponsible it is for young men to father these children and run off, but we've got to get more young women to make a different choice in life, too. We have simply got to find a way to deal with this.

Thirty years ago one of 40 white births was out of wedlock; now it's one in 5. Thirty years ago, one in five African-American births was out of wedlock; now, over half. But the white out-of-wedlock birthrate is growing much faster than the African-American rate. So, we are going to have equal opportunity for all before you know it. [Laughter]

You're laughing to keep from crying, but it's not funny, is it? We're going to see a merger of this. No more race discrimination; more than half of everybody's babies will be born where there was never a marriage. That is a disaster. It is wrong, and someone has to say, again, "It is simply not right. You shouldn't have a baby before you're ready, and you shouldn't have a baby when you're not married. You just have to stop it." We've got to turn it around.

Now I want to make it clear we shouldn't stigmatize these babies, and when they're born, we should take care of them. We ought to love the babies. We ought to love the parents. We ought to give them the best future we can, but we have to tell people, look at the facts. Look at what happens to people. Look at their incomes, their education levels, their future. We've got to get people out of thinking that the future is 5 minutes away and to realize it is 5 years or 10 years or 20 years away. And you have to do that. I'll try to do my part, but this is not a Government deal. This is the way people are behaving, as if there was no respect for themselves and no future. We have to stop.

Finally, let me say, I ask you to help lead us in bringing back an ethic of service to this Nation. We're going to kick off our national service program on Monday, which will this year involve 20,000 young Americans in serving their community, many of them in church groups. The Congress of National Black Churches is an active participant in national service. We want kids working with churches to solve a lot of these problems and earning credit for their college education. Year after next we'll have 100,000 young people. You can put them to work. When people are serving one another, when they're acting as role models, they'll be better people themselves. And you can do that.

All these things you can do: help our kids be safer, help make sure every child is loved by somebody and disciplined by somebody and cared for by somebody, and help our kids change this culture which is ending family life and childhood as we know it and bring us back to the spirit of service.

Finally, let me say this: I came here to say this because I don't believe in preaching at people. I believe you are the heroes of this whole thing. A lot of you have been out there like the little Dutch boy with your thumb in the dike against all these forces for years. A lot of you have been doing these things. A lot of you have run the day care centers and run the recreation programs and run the prison ministries and counseled the young people. You have done this. But America now knows that we must all do this.

So I say, I honor you. I honor the members of your church that get up and go to work every day and follow the law and pay their taxes and do their best to raise their kids. And let us say for the record, since all America is watching this, most of the members of your church do exactly that. They play by the rules, and they work hard, and they do their best.

But let's not kid each other, folks. I'm going to go back to Washington. And I'll keep trying to create jobs. And we'll do a good job of that. And we'll open America to the world. I'll keep working for peace and freedom around the world. I'll keep working for better education and training opportunities. I'll keep trying to solve this terrible riddle of why we can't get jobs in the inner city and poor rural areas. And we'll try to find ways to do that. But in the end, if we're going to get the rhythm right, if we're going to enjoy the progress we're making, even in an imperfect world, we have to get the bedrock right. We have to know that the spirit that we believe in is rifling through this country and is going to work.

You know, Paul, St. Paul, was not Timothy's father, but he was his spiritual father. And he said, "When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God which is in thee." I believe and you believe that every child has a gift of God within them. When the gift dies, it is our sin as well as theirs and our loss as well as theirs.

So let us leave here resolved to stir up the gift of God that is within us and do those things that will enable us to go forward with joy and confidence to make the future what it ought to be.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:10 a.m. in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. In his remarks, he referred to National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., officers Rev. Theodore J. Jemison, president, Rev. Henry J. Lyons, president-elect, Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, general secretary, Rev. A. Lincoln James, Sunday School Congress president, and Dr. Mary O. Ross, Women's Auxiliary president; Mayor Marc H. Morial of New Orleans; and Rev. Jesse Jackson, District of Columbia shadow U.S. Senator.

William J. Clinton, Remarks to the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., in New Orleans, Louisiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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