In a major address on race relations Monday, President Clinton appealed to white and black Americans to take personal responsibility for mending the rift “that is tearing the heart of America.”
On the day of the Million Man March in Washington and two weeks after a Los Angeles jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of murder charges, Clinton put the prestige of the presidency behind his call for Americans to understand the legitimate grievances felt by both races and to talk, listen and learn from each other.
“America, we must clean our house of racism,” Clinton said. “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish as fools,” said the president, quoting the civil-rights martyr, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Clinton’s speech, delivered to an enthusiastic audience at the University of Texas in Austin and televised nationwide, struck a balance in discussing the nation’s most delicate problem and displayed a dispassionate restraint on this most emotional of controversies.
Clinton denounced, for example, both Louis Farrakhan, the fiery black separatist Nation of Islam leader who called the Million Man March on Washington, and Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles police detective whose documented racist comments were a pivotal issue in the Simpson trial. Yet, in doing so, Clinton carefully avoided mentioning both men’s names.
Of Farrakhan, Clinton said: “One million men are right to be standing up for personal responsibility, but one million men do not make right one man’s message of malice and division.”
That reference, which inspired loud applause, was to Farrakhan’s lifelong advocacy of racial separation and his frequent anti-Semitism.
Of Fuhrman, Clinton said in remarks directed to whites: “The taped voice of one policeman should fill you with outrage. … White racism may be black people’s burden, but it is white people’s problem.”
Asked why Clinton did not denounce Farrakhan by name, top presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos said: “It was such a clear reference, I don’t think it was necessary to go beyond that.”
Farrakhan fired back at Clinton later in a speech to the masses gathered on Washington’s Mall: “We are being torn apart, and we can’t gloss it over with nice speeches, my dear Mr. President. Sir, with all due respect, that was a great speech you made today. … But, of course, you spoke ill, indirectly, of me as a purveyor of malice and hatred.
“I must hasten to tell you, Mr. President - that I’m not a malicious person, and I’m not filled with malice,” Farrakhan insisted.
In his address, Clinton hewed close to principles he has espoused throughout his public life, such as emphasizing personal responsibility as the key to solving such deep-rooted problems.
No issue cuts closer to Clinton’s core than concern about race, which stems from his childhood in segregated Arkansas and his commitment as a youthful idealist in the 1960s to Dr. King’s moral vision.
The president appealed to white Americans to “understand and acknowledge the roots of black pain.”
That pain was born in slavery, persisted through legal segregation and extended from lynchings to police brutality as recent and symbolic as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, Clinton said.
“We have to root out the remnants of racism in our police departments.”
Yet Clinton also called on black Americans “to understand and acknowledge the roots of white fear in America. There is a legitimate fear of the violence that … too often has a black face.”
“It isn’t racist,” the president said, “for parents to recoil in disgust” when reading that two-thirds of black gang members say they feel justified in shooting someone who shows them disrespect.”
Clinton called for Americans who want to fight racism and “roll back the divide” to open honest conversations across racial lines in their workplaces, classrooms and communities, and to listen to one other.
“I am convinced, based on a rich lifetime of friendships and common endeavors with people of different races, that the American people will find out they have a lot more in common than they think they do.”