New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has made some bold statements about race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Whenever subsequently pressed about such statements, however, Nagin keeps wimping out. It is time for him to either shut up or stop backing down when challenged.
Nagin's latest saga involves a speech he gave to the National Newspaper Publishers Association. At the event earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Nagin made some clear references to race. The Washington Post ran a story about his comments under the headline, 'Nagin Suspects a Plot to Keep Blacks Away.' When the New Orleans Times-Picayune cited the Post's account of his remarks, Nagin wimped out.
"I did not say anything racial," he told New Orleans reporters. "My take on it is that it was some young reporter in the back of the room, looking for some way to get a nice story out. He jumbled everything I said up, and brought some things in the middle of the talk to the front, and painted this picture that was just not what I intended to do, nor would I say."
Rather than trying to discredit Hamil Harris, the not-so-young Black Washington Post reporter covering the event, Nagin should have told the truth. And the truth is that he was accurately quoted. I know because I was in the room. And so were members of International Business Kids, some future entrepreneurs who videotaped his speech.
Let's review what he said.
"It wasn't until I described my city, y'all know the story, until everybody in America started to wake up and say wait a minute, what is he doing? What is he saying? Maybe we should try and do something different to make sure that this man does not go any further. Because they realized that I wasn't a person to be controlled. I was going to speak my mind especially when I saw our people suffer."
When Nagin referred to his description of New Orleans and said, "Y'all know the story," there was no doubt that he was referring to his getting in hot water for saying that God wants New Orleans to remain a "Chocolate City." Under pressure, he ate those words faster than he could chew a slice of chocolate cake.
For the record, many Blacks in New Orleans thought that Nagin was controlled by corporate interests during his first term and felt that he had done little for African Americans after receiving 80 percent of the White vote. In fact, Bishop Paul Morton once described him as "a White man in Black skin."
After losing his White base, Nagin was forced to court Black voters. In an appearance before the National Conference of Black Mayors in Memphis, for example, he referred to "people who don't look like us." Rather than returning City Hall to a White mayor, Black voters in New Orleans held their nose and voted for Nagin.
In his speech to the NNPA, Nagin said: ''The prognosticators were saying there's no way you are going to win because, see, they had dispersed all our people across 44 different states with one-way tickets out. They thought they were talking about a different kind of New Orleans. They didn't realize that folk were awake and they were paying attention and they weren't going to let a plan unfold that changed all the history of what we have fought for over many, many years.'
Does Nagin really think an audience that was at least 95 percent Black didn't know he was referring to African Americans when he said "our people?"
And in case there was any doubt, after Nagin complimented Rep. Maxine Waters, he said, "And Maxine started to talk around the country. I remember when we went to Memphis. She talked to Black folks around the country and tried to wake them up and say look at what's happening."
Here's the statement that drew so much criticism back in New Orleans:
"Because ladies and gentlemen, what happened in New Orleans could happen anywhere. They are studying this model, this model of a natural disaster dispersing a community and changing the electoral process in that community. We need to really understand what's going on. When I stood up and spoke out and they started to vilify, I knew there was going to be a reaction. It's a law of physics. For every action there's a reaction. I knew it was going to happen, but I didn't realize how strong it was going to happen."
And apparently Nagin doesn't realize that he can't run from his words. If he believes what he says, then he should have the courage to stand behind his words and stop blaming the messenger for accurately reporting his message.
George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.