Years ago, my wife was the news editor for the newspaper in the small town where we grew up. Being news editor for a paper like this meant that she covered a variety of events. If a story was going to be written about an event in our county, she almost always was the person going to the event to cover it. She went to city board meetings, fires, automobile accidents and lots of sporting events. I went with her many ball games and other gatherings that were more entertaining. We went to the county-wide NAACP banquet at least two years in a row. The first year we went it was 1992, an election year. Our local congressman was retiring and several of the candidates running for his seat attended this banquet. I spent time with several of the candidates. I watched the man that eventually won spend no less than five minutes trying to pick up a penny from the floor in the cafeteria of the county high school where the event was held. There was a meal, entertainment and a speaker. Also at the end of the event, they gave out door prizes.
In the year between the first banquet we attended and the next, I was elected as an alderman of the county seat where we lived. We arrived relatively early at the second banquet. My wife and I found a seat in approximately the same location we had sat the year before. Soon, one of the organizers of the banquet came up to me and mentioned that there was a seat at the head table reserved for a representative of our city. They didn’t expect the mayor to attend and asked me if I would care to sit there. I appreciated the offer and said that we would. They also told me that there was a spot on the program for a representative of the city to say a few words and asked if I would do this. I said I would do that too.
I had nothing prepared to say but I have always been relatively comfortable in front of a crowd. My musical experience has helped with that. I had plenty of time to come up with some thoughts on what I would say. I would say mention the mayor, the board and the people of our city and I would welcome them on their behalf. And I would find a way to say this in a couple of different ways and not venture into anything else. My task was to represent my city and to welcome everyone. Easy enough. Don’t stay too long but don’t spend so little time that I appear uncomfortable or insincere.
I was led to my seat at the head table. I was practically right next to the podium. My seat was better than the old gentleman sitting next to us. I later found out that this was the lieutenant governor. I had been given a seat in a place of honor. I had always felt that I had a genuine friendship with several people in the African-American community in my town. When I was running for alderman, I felt that I had their support. I think this was a way for this organization to show their appreciation and I was humbled.
At the appropriate spot early in the program, I was invited to speak and I shared the thoughts that I had put together. Brief and sincere. Smiles from the audience and polite applause as I returned to my seat. The program continued.
The keynote speaker gave his address and the door prizes had been distributed. I thought the program was over. Then the host stepped up to the microphone and said, “And now we would like to invite Mr. Wheeler back up to give us a few more comments”. I was caught completely by surprise. I had no idea that I was going to be called on come back and speak again. More than that, I had nothing to say. I didn’t really have anything to say the first time I was asked to speak but I am comfortable enough to put something together on the fly to at least fill a little time. But I had virtually exhausted anything I could quickly go to that was pure filler. At this point, I was running on fumes. I didn’t have any go-to stories or jokes at the time. If I did, they were probably dirty enough that I didn’t need to share them in that environment. I couldn’t think of anything that I hadn’t already said so I basically went into the same material that I had said before. In addition to thanking them for inviting me there and welcoming everyone on behalf of the city, I also started talking about how important their organization was to our community. I was on autopilot. Searching for words and not giving much time to process them before they came out of my mouth. It was almost like an out of body experience when I heard myself repeatedly saying a phrase: You people.
This banquet was in 1993. A year earlier during the presidential election, candidate Ross Perot came under fire when he used the phrase “you people” while addressing the national NAACP convention in Nashville, Tennessee. And here I was at my local NAACP banquet committing the exact same faux pas. Any of the judgments that I had passed on Perot the previous year were coming back to haunt me at that very moment. I handled the situation in the best way I could. When I realized what I had said, I practically stopped in mid-sentence. Then I commented on myself saying “Listen to me up here, I sound like Ross Perot”. The crowd laughed along with me after I said this. I felt a lot of goodwill from the audience that night. My efforts to be a representative of people of all color had paid off. The audience knew that I had no ill will toward them and they treated me with grace. I quickly wrapped up my remarks and I received polite applause, very similar to the applause I had received during my first time to speak.
The banquet ended soon after that. I had several friends come up to me and give me an appropriate hard time about my comments. But they were all done with smiles and support. I didn’t notice anyone purposely avoiding me or wanting to confront me. All was well. When I ran for re-election a year later, I received more votes than I did the first time. I believe my mistake was soon forgotten.
When I got home that night, I immediately called my dad and said, “You won’t believe what I said at the NAACP banquet tonight…”
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller