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Clyburn Delivers Commencement Address to Southern University, Baton Rouge, LA

CLYBURN: “If the demographics of the affected areas were different, the response of the federal government would have been different. 

Friday, May 11, 2007

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Kristie Greco : (202) 226-3210

WASHINGTON, DC—House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn today delivered the commencement address to the historically black college, Southern University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Clyburn, who has spearheaded efforts in the House of Representatives to speed up recovery assistance to the Gulf Coast, addressed the disparity in federal response to the region.

In his speech Clyburn said: “I also want to tell you that the response of our nation’s leadership was not prompt enough or not sufficient enough to assist you with the recovery.  The federal bureaucracy and the previous Congress didn’t provide the proper assistance and management of this national tragedy.  But that was then and this is now, and I want you to know this new Congress will fulfill our responsibility to provide for those still suffering in the Gulf Coast region.”

He continued: “I truly believe that if the demographics of the affected areas were different, the response of the federal government would have been different.  So I have taken this on as my personal mission

“A 100-page study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation this week clearly reports that double the number of blacks report their lives still being disrupted more than a year after Katrina than whites.  The racial disparities cut across issues including job experiences, housing and health. 

“We acted swiftly and effectively to assist those devastated by Hurricane Andrew in Florida.  Why did New Orleans not receive the same treatment?  The only logical conclusion one can make is that the communities impacted didn’t hold the same “value” to those in charge as the communities affected by Hurricane Andrew.”

Following is the text of Clyburn’s speech prepared for delivery:

Southern University Commencement Address

Baton Rouge, LA

Friday, May 11, 2007

Chancellor Edward Jackson, Board of Supervisors, faculty, staff, family, friends, alumni, and future alumni:  Let me begin by thanking you for the kind and gracious invitation. It is an honor to speak before this impressive and resilient group of graduates, the Southern University Class of 2007.      

This University has a rich history that leads to many parallels with what is happening in Louisiana today.  When Southern University was founded more than 127 years ago, its original home was in New Orleans. Then the Second Morrill Act of 1890 created a second set of land grant institutions, and Southern became Louisiana’s Land Grant institution for people of color, just as my alma mater South Carolina State.  In 1912, to meet its growing mission as an agriculture and mechanical educational institution, Southern’s campus was relocated to Baton Rouge. This migration from New Orleans to Baton Rouge mirrors a trend we have seen in recent years as well. 

This most recent migration, however, was not one of choice, but of necessity as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita wiped out much of New Orleans and shattered the homes and lives of thousands of people. Baton Rouge opened its heart and its community to those escaping the hurricane’s wrath, and today many of those who came to Baton Rouge remain here.

I want to express my deep appreciation to my good friend, Mayor-President Kip Holden, to the citizens of Baton Rouge, and to Southern University for welcoming those in need and providing new opportunities for those displaced by Katrina and Rita. 

I also want to tell you that the response of our nation’s leadership was not prompt enough or not sufficient enough to assist you with the recovery.  The federal bureaucracy and the previous Congress didn’t provide the proper assistance and management of this national tragedy.  But that was then and this is now, and I want you to know this new Congress will fulfill our responsibility to provide for those still suffering in the Gulf Coast region.

Last night, the House approved legislation that included $6.8 billion in hurricane recovery assistance for those impacted by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.  The bill included funding for levee repair and coastal restoration; and funding for the farmers, ranchers and fishing industry devastated by the storms.  It extends FEMA’s ability to pay utility costs through February 7, 2008.  It also extends the Disaster Voucher Program, which provides Section 8 vouchers to low-income residents who evacuated and moved to Baton Rouge and other parts of the country.  The bill provides $60 million to help colleges, universities and schools return to normal operations.  It eliminates special rules that prohibit loan forgiveness and includes $25.1 million to extend the Community Disaster Loan program for homeowners and small businesses.

The bill would finally cut the bureaucratic red tape and speed up recovery efforts by waiving the provisions under the Stafford Act that requires local communities to match federal relief funding.  This provision will free up billions of dollars for reconstruction and recovery projects that have been on hold because local governments still devastated by the storm couldn’t raise the matching funds.  

All of these provisions were passed by the Congress two weeks ago and were vetoed by the President Bush.  They have also been denounced by some of my colleagues as pork barrel spending.  Well, I say to them, that one person’s pork is another person’s beef.   And it is time for the people to ask in unison, “Where is the beef?

I truly believe that if the demographics of the affected areas were different, the response of the federal government would have been different.  So I have taken this on as my personal mission. 

A 100-page study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation this week clearly reports that double the number of blacks report their lives still being disrupted more than a year after Katrina than whites.  The racial disparities cut across issues including job experiences, housing and health.

We acted swiftly and effectively to assist those devastated by Hurricane Andrew in Florida.  Why did New Orleans not receive the same treatment?  The only logical conclusion one can make is that the communities impacted didn’t hold the same “value” to those in charge as the communities affected by Hurricane Andrew. 

But I believe that you know the value of the African American community just as I do.

When I was elected to Congress back in 1992, I became the first African American to serve in the Congress from South Carolina since post Reconstruction.  My closest predecessor was George Washington Murray, and he used his bully pulpit at the end of the 19th Century to promote the achievements of Southern Blacks.  On the floor of the House, Congressman Murray stated:

"Mr. Speaker, the people of color in this country want an opportunity to show that the progress, that the civilization which is now admired the world over, that the civilization which is now leading the world, that the civilization which all nations of the world look up to and imitate -- the people of color, I say, want an opportunity to show that they, too, are part and parcel of that great civilization."

This great country has benefited from the hard work and creativity of many people, some of them were African Americans from this state, people like Homer Plessy who in 1892, challenged the law that separated the races on public streetcars in Louisiana.  His challenge went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson case, in which the high court upheld the “separate but equal” clause.  It was not the outcome he sought, but his efforts laid the foundation for Rosa Parks to make the same challenge on an Alabama bus more than 60 years later. 

Our great civilization was enhanced by influential musicians like “Satchmo” Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson.  These extraordinary performers used their talents not only for others’ entertainment, but to promote social causes as well.

Our great civilization was built by business entrepreneurs like Madame C.J. Walker, whose beauty empire propelled her to become the first African American woman millionaire.  She used her power and money to support causes that fought racism. 

These proud Louisianans were black, and born into a time when they were not considered equal citizens.  Despite the challenges they faced, they did not allow themselves to be held back by any encumbrances – real or perceived and they did not let setbacks stymie them.  That , in and of itself, is a great lesson for us all. 

Southern University and the city of Baton Rouge have faced adversity.  But we are known by how we handle our challenges. 

Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Each of you will be presented with opportunities and you will have to decide for yourself which path to take.  The responsibility facing each of you as you as you take the next step is challenging. 

Nationally, we are at a similar challenging fork in the road.  Our intent aside, our place as George Washington Murray said as “the civilization which all nations of the world look up to and imitate” is being challenged because of the road our nation has been traveling for the past few years.

You, the Southern University Class of 2007, now possess a tremendous gift.  The gift of a wonderful education.  This is the greatest tool you have to make the right choices as you embark on the next chapter of your life.  So I leave you with one last piece of advice—never give up, and never get hung up on who gets the credit. 

Homer Plessy, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, and Madame C.J. Walker were faced with extraordinary obstacles.  They never gave up.  When they came to a fork in the road, they chose the path that while treacherous, led to a long-term positive effect.  They never gave up

I urge you to look down the path ahead of you, and search for those opportunities that will lead you to have a positive impact no matter how large or small. You have earned your degrees, and it is now time to take your place as a few more contributors to this “great civilization.”  But in all that you do, never give up.  Never, never, never give up.

Thank you and Godspeed.