by Charles Gordon
July 14, 2007

Last week, the NAACP held its annual convention in Detroit and, true to form, chairman Julian Bond in his opening remarks uttered something breathtakingly asinine. He accused Uncle Sam of “lynching” blacks in New Orleans by essentially failing to find a magic wand to wave over the city and make its post-Katrina ills go away.

Truth be told, Katrina merely highlighted New Orleans’ pre-existing problems — namely the most dysfunctional political culture in America, an economy that depends on tourism and little else, and a morally and spiritually bankrupt inner-city subculture that reinforces in people the defeatist conviction that they are perpetual victims who can’t fend for themselves.

Nonetheless, the federal government, particularly FEMA, made its share of mistakes in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath that made a bad situation worse.

So when Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff stepped into the lion’s den to address a section of the convention last Tuesday, people were wondering what he’d say.

Like Bond, he said plenty.

While Bond wallowed in a pathetic narrative of black impotence, Chertoff celebrated black empowerment and heroism, particularly in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he related one of the greatest untold stories in American military history, that of the daring rescue in 1896 of a shipwrecked boat and its crew in the midst of a terrifying hurricane by the black surfmen of Pea Island Station near Cape Fear, North Carolina. Calling them “the magnificent seven,” Chertoff related their bravery and ingenuity as they rescued the drowning crew, overcoming seemingly impossible odds.

Focusing next on Katrina, Chertoff explained why it was that , rather than prior estimates ranging from 10,000 to 60,000, only 2,000 perished in Katrina. It was, he said, the United States Coast Guard that rescued more than 33,000 people.

Noting the irony that 1896 was also the year of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court ruling that sanctioned mandatory segregation of the races, Chertoff went on to say that it was the spirit of Pea Island that ultimately triumphed, not Plessy. In the end, the civil rights movement, based on the premise that all are created equal, won. And it won because its leaders appealed to that quintessentially American idea, not to some alien, un-American idea.

Chertoff went on to praise the U.S. military’s freeing women in Afghanistan from the medievalist oppression of the Taliban and to call for fighting our enemies not just on the battle field but in the war of ideas, holding high the banner of freedom and opportunity. He closed with a call to treat Muslim Americans as other Americans, upholding their rights as citizens while at the same time insisting on their responsibilities as Americans to do what we all should be doing — keeping their eyes and ears open and reporting anything suspicious.

Bond and Chertoff — a tale of two different men, with two very different ideas on America, yesterday and today.