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Council censures member for racial remark

HOUSTON -- City Council members publicly censured one of their own Friday for disgracing the city with a racial remark about a proposal to rename an airport for the late Rep. Mickey Leland.

The council, sitting in special session, voted unanimously to reprimand Jim Westmoreland for jokingly suggesting to a reporter two weeks ago that Houston Intercontinental Airport be renamed 'Nigger International' to appease blacks seeking to honor Leland.

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Leland, D-Texas, was killed this summer in a plane crash during a hunger relief mission in Ethiopia.

Westmoreland, who said he actually used the words 'Negro International,' twice has apologized publicly for the remark but has refused to resign.

He prepared a resolution condemning his own words and urged its adoption by the council.

'I was just making a statement to the public that statements I made do not reflect at all the feeling or the drive and direction of this City Council,' Westmoreland said of his action.

The 25-minute council session Friday was attended by only a few dozen people, in contrast to the more than 250 who attended a Wednesday session to support calls for Westmoreland to step down.

Although the resolution passed unanimously, some council members questioned its value.

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'Will it bring some peace to the community?' asked Councilwoman Christin Hartung. 'Will it bring us back together? Will it allow us to go foward? What is the point of this resolution?'

Councilman Rodney Ellis, a close friend and former aide of Leland, urged Mayor Kathy Whitmire to appoint a blue-ribbon commission to investigate racism in Houston.

Whitmire has condemned Westmoreland's remark but declined to call for his resignation because he is standing for re-election Tuesday and his name still would appear on the ballot. Westmoreland is opposed in the election by Beverly Clark, a black educator.

Whitmire said the council needed to go on record to prove Houston does not condone racial prejudice. She noted a censure vote would not be legally binding and would only express the council's dissatisfaction with Westmoreland's comments.

News coverage of Westmoreland's remarks has spread to other states, and city officials fear the reports will tarnish Houston's image and drive away business.

'The sooner this ends, the better,' said Henry King, chairman of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. 'Anything that makes headlines on the front pages and is in national newspapers having to do with a racist comment day after day isn't good for the community. The sooner it concludes, the better for the community.'

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Death threats against Westmoreland have prompted police to step up security around council members.

Local and national leaders of the NAACP have called for Westmoreland to step down, as have a number of black political and community leaders.

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