Posted on April 04, 1996 in Washington Watch
Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown was my friend. Not only that, he was also a friend of the Arab American community.
I have written before about Ron’s role as Secretary, about his commitment to economic development for Palestinians and his desire to expand the U.S. partnership with the Arab world.
There is a personal story, however, that must also be told. It is the story of how Ron Brown became my friend and how he became a champion for the rights of Arab Americans.
We founded the Arab American Institute in 1985. Fresh from our experiences in the 1984 Jesse Jackson for President campaign and the Reagan-Bush reelection effort, we launched AAI as a bipartisan political organization to secure an Arab American role in both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Our Republican colleagues did quite well. They formed a national federation of Republican clubs and were recognized by the national party.
But as Democrats, we encountered serious obstacles. Although we formed about 20 local Arab American Democratic clubs and a national federation, the national party would not recognize us. Not only that, but for four years the party leaders refused to even meet with us.
In 1988, Arab Americans again played a leading role in the Jesse Jackson for President campaign. As part of that effort, I led the campaign to have Palestinian rights debated at the Democratic National Convention. It was at this time that I met Ron Brown. A Washington attorney and respected Democrat, he was asked by Reverend Jackson to manage the Jackson campaign’s efforts at the Democratic Convention.
The Democratic party establishment was wary of Jackson’s role and also deeply concerned that our determination to raise the issue of Palestinian rights would prove divisive to party unity.
Some party leaders charged that if I persisted in my effort to debate the Palestinian issue at the Convention, I would bring disaster to the Democrats. But with Jackson’s support, I succeeded in bringing the issue to the floor.
We had the first ever debate on Palestinian rights from the podium of the convention and the first ever floor demonstration in support of Palestinian statehood. Over 1,000 delegates carried signs reading “Palestine Statehood Now!” and “Palestinian Rights are the key to Middle East peace.”
Some party leaders reacted with hostility and threatened to isolate me from party politics. My last two days at the convention were quite lonely and difficult.
As I was leaving the convention, two elderly African American men came to speak with me. One was Percy Sutton, a famed New York political leader and former attorney for Malcolm X. He embraced me, as did the other man, who I noted had tears in his eyes. Both men complimented me for my courage of conviction and my persistence, and noted that they had experienced the same threats and isolation 40 years earlier when they had insisted on raising the issue of African American civil rights at the 1948 Democratic National Convention. They encouraged me to be strong with the knowledge that we would ultimately win.
The man with Percy Sutton was Ron Brown’s father.
Ron stood by me during the convention. When Reverend Jackson nominated me to serve as one of his representatives to the Democratic National Committee (DNC – the governing body of the party), Ron came to me with the news and discussed the pros and cons of the appointment. It was an honor, but he cautioned that it might not be the right time. I might, he warned, become a lightning rod for opposition to Arab American inclusion in the Democratic party, while the objective was to get an Arab American activist into the party leadership. And so I agreed that we should give the appointment to another Arab American.
In fact, Ron’s advice was prophetic. One of the Republican party tactics in the 1988 Bush campaign was to use full-page newspaper ads demonizing the Democratic party for appointing a “pro-PLO” Arab American to the Democratic National Committee. Ron defended the Arab American member of the Democratic National Committee and insisted that she remain in her post.
When Ron announced in December of 1988 that he would run for Chairman of the Democratic party, I contributed to his campaign, as did other Arab Americans. While some told Ron to return the checks, he resisted and insisted that the party would be open to Arab Americans. In the end, Ron won and became the first African American to hold the position and become party Chair.
I will never forget the day he took charge. He called me that morning from his office and invited me to come over. Knowing that Arab Americans had been denied a meeting at the DNC for four years, Ron wanted his first meeting as party Chair to be with an Arab American. It was his signal that the exclusion of Arab Americans from U.S. politics was a thing of the past.
During the next four years he made regular appearances at AAI conventions. While some hawkish American Jewish contributors threatened Ron with withdrawing their support from the party, Brown resisted the pressure and continued to support Arab American inclusion in the party.
Ron remained a close friend of the American Jewish community and a supporter of Israel – but he insisted that it was not an either-or situation: he could be friends with both American Jews and Arab Americans, and he was.
During the 1992 Clinton campaign it was Ron Brown who campaigned in the Arab American community for the Democratic ticket, and it was Ron Brown who fought for months to get Arab Americans a role in the Clinton/Gore campaign.
Following the ‘92 campaign, Ron and Reverend Jackson and the new Chair of the party all agreed to give me the appointment to the DNC that I had given up in 1988. I owe that position, which I now hold, to them and to their commitment to our community – and their fairness.
I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the day that it was announced that Ron would be Secretary of Commerce. We spoke on the phone, and it was clear that he understood the role that the Secretary of Commerce could play in pursuit of a new foreign policy that viewed trade and economic development as the key to peace and stability of the post-Cold War world.
And so it was no surprise to me that we met in Washington shortly after his confirmation at the Department of Commerce to discuss how we could improve trade relations with the Arab world and to use economic development to strengthen the search for peace.
When Vice President Al Gore asked me to assume the role as co-President of Builders for Peace, Ron Brown was one of my earliest and strongest supporters. He planned an early trip to the region and Arab Americans were brought into the planning. It was the first of many meetings that Arab American businesspeople had at the Commerce Department. As he had opened the Democratic party to Arab Americans, he also opened the Commerce Department.
Our first trip together to the West Bank and Gaza in January of 1994 was highly significant. Ron was especially concerned to meet with PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat and to be respectful of Palestinian concerns.
As a further example of his commitment to our community and to his deep sense of justice he made an extraordinary effort to report on his trip to our AAI conference. He left the Middle East, flew non-stop to Andrews Air force Base in Virginia and one hour later spoke to our Saturday night banquet. His remarks were so compelling that I want to share excerpts of them with you:
“I left Cairo at 5:30 this morning Cairo time so that I could keep a commitment that I was determined to keep – to go to Gaza. I happen to think that it is very important for those of us who have positions of responsibility to demonstrate empathy, to reach out to people who have been oppressed, whose lives have been made miserable by their living conditions, and to let them know that we care about them.
”...I want to start saying some things about … Arab Americans … who have sought to be listened to, respected, and for too long have been shut out. I made a special effort when I was Chairman of the Democratic Party to never let that happen.
”...You’ve heard in some of the earlier remarks about my meetings with Arab Americans before I left on this mission last Friday. That was to get some focus myself, to see what was important to the people most affected, to determine how I could do the most good and have the most impact. And I think we’re beginning to have an impact, we’re beginning to see change and that the struggle was worth it, and the pain and the sacrifice and the hurt and the disillusionment and, in some cases, the cynicism that has now been overcome, was all worth it.
“I started a minute ago talking about Gaza because it had a real impact on me. I was in Soweto about six weeks ago and as an American of African descent it had a profound emotional impact. But I must say the situation in Gaza is much worse, because not only is there abject poverty, but there is a kind of oppressive occupation presence that is just unacceptable. And being there brought home to me how absolutely essential it is to see this peace process move forward, and to get to the day where the kind of – forget about the physical distress and the economic distress – the emotional distress that you see on the faces of the people having to live under those conditions; you wonder how they can survive. And I spent about three hours there yesterday and just riding in and seeing the potential – fertile soil, beautiful beaches, people with great energy and unbelievable endurance – it makes us know how important it is to make sure that this process is successful.
”...I see an area of the world that has been for too long ignored. And from my perspective as Secretary of Commerce, my principle focus is how can we create jobs so that people can take care of the basic needs of their families, and that is particularly the case in the West Bank and Gaza.
”...No Secretary of Commerce from the United States had been to the Middle East in over 20 years…. No cabinet official had been in Orient House until I went there three days ago. No cabinet official had been in Gaza until I went today. Because again I think you have to demonstrate by your presence, by seeing people face-to-face, by looking them in the eye, by shaking their hand, by putting your arms around them, that you empathize, that they understand, that you care, that you are committed to making a difference.
”...The Arab American Institute can play a crucial role in making sure that the future is one that is bright, and one that really meets the aspirations we have for ourselves and for our country, the United States of America. I want to congratulate you for your diligence. I want to congratulate you for your commitment to constructive change not only in America but all around the world. And I am confident that if we continue to work together, to plan together, to struggle together, that we can make this nation and, in fact, this entire planet, all that it can be for all of its people.”
Ron Brown was to return from this trip on April 7. On April 8 at 10:00, he and I were to meet at the Commerce Department with a Palestinian American businessman to discuss how to get a major American company to open a franchise in the West Bank.
Ron Brown was our friend and a champion to the end. The best way that we can remember him is by continuing to live with his vision of working for fairness and justice and economic prosperity for all.
We will miss his leadership, but through the example he gave us during his life he made us all strong enough to continue.
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