When I was first asked to speak here, I thought
to myself, never in a million years would I have guessed that I'd
be serving in Congress with John Lewis.
And then I thought, you know, there was once a time
when John Lewis might never have guessed that he'd be serving in
Congress. And there was a time not long before that when people
might never have guessed that someday, African-Americans would be
able to go to the polls, pick up a ballot, make their voice heard,
and elect that Congress.
But we can, and I'm here, because people like John
Lewis believed. Because people like John Lewis feared nothing and
risked everything for those beliefs. Because they were willing to
spend sleepless nights in lonely jail cells, endure the searing
pain of billy clubs cracked against their bones, and face down death
simply so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life.
How far we've come because of your courage, John.
How far we've come from the days when the son of
sharecroppers would huddle by the radio as the crackle of Dr. King's
dreams filled his heart with hope. He was often forced to leave
school to work in the fields and the public library was off-limits
to his kind, and yet young John Lewis sought knowledge. His parents
were never the type to complain or try to stir up any trouble, and
yet their son sought justice.
And so he organized, even when so many tried to
stop his efforts. He spoke truths, even when they tried to silence
his words. And he marched, even when they tried to knock him down
again and again and again.
The road John chose for himself was not easy. But
the road to change never is.
I think it's simple for us to look back forty years
and think that it was all so clear then. That while there may be
room for moral ambiguity in the issues we debate today, civil rights
was different. That people generally knew what was right and what
was wrong, who the good guys and the bad guys were. But the moral
certainties we now take for granted - that separate can never be
equal, that the blessings of liberty enshrined in our Constitution
belong to all of us, that our children should be able to go to school
together and play together and grow up together - were anything
but certain when John Lewis was a boy.
And so there was struggle and sacrifice, discipline
and tremendous courage. And there was the culmination of it all
one Sunday afternoon on a bridge in Alabama.
I've often thought about the people on the Edmund
Pettus Bridge that day. Not only John and Hosea Williams leading
the march, but the hundreds of everyday Americans who left their
homes and their churches to join it. Blacks and whites, teenagers
and children, teachers and bankers and shopkeepers - a beloved community
of God's children ready to stand for freedom.
And I wonder, where did they find that kind of courage?
When you're facing row after row of state troopers on horseback
armed with billy clubs and tear gas...when they're coming toward
you spewing hatred and violence, how do you simply stop, kneel down,
and pray to the Lord for salvation? Truly, this is the audacity
But the most amazing thing of all is that after
that day - after John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life,
after people's heads were gashed open and their eyes were burned
and they watched their children's innocence literally beaten out
of them...after all that, they went back to march again.
They marched again. They crossed the bridge. They
awakened a nation's conscience, and not five months later, the Voting
Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law.
And so it was, in a story as old as our beginnings
and as timeless as our hopes, that change came about because the
good people of a great nation willed it so.
Thank you, John, for going back. Thank you for marching
Thank you for reminding us that in America, ordinary
citizens can somehow find in their hearts the courage to do extraordinary
things. That in the face of the fiercest resistance and the most
crushing oppression, one voice can be willing to stand up and say
that's wrong and this is right and here's why. And say it again.
And say it louder. And keep saying it until other voices join the
chorus to sing the songs that set us free.
Today, I'm sure you'll all agree that we have songs
left to sing and bridges left to cross. And if there's anything
we can learn from this living saint sitting beside me, it is that
change is never easy, but always possible. That it comes not from
violence or militancy or the kind of politics that pits us against
each other and plays on our worst fears; but from great discipline
and organization, from a strong message of hope, and from the courage
to turn against the tide so that the tide eventually may be turned.
Today, we need that courage. We need the courage
to say that it's wrong that one out of every five children is born
into poverty in the richest country on Earth. And it's right to
do whatever necessary to provide our children the care and the education
they need to live up to their God-given potential.
It's wrong to tell hardworking families who are
earning less and paying more in taxes that we can't do anything
to help them buy their own home or send their kids to college or
care for them when they're sick. And it's right to expect that if
you're willing to work hard in this country of American Dreamers,
the sky is the limit on what you can achieve.
It's wrong to tell those brave men and women who
are willing to fight and die for this country that when they come
home, we may not have room for them at the VA hospitals or the benefits
we promised them. And it's right to always provide the very best
care for the very best of America.
My friends, we have not come this far as a people
and a nation because we believe that we're better off simply fending
for ourselves. We are here because we believe that all men are created
equal, and that we are all connected to each other as one people.
And we need to say that more. And say it again. And keep saying
And where will our courage come from to speak these
truths? When we stand on our own Edmund Pettus Bridge, what hope
will sustain us?
I believe it is the hope of knowing that people
like John Lewis have stood on that same bridge and lived to cross
For me, this kind of hope often comes from a memory
of a trip I took during the campaign. About a week after the primary,
Dick Durbin and I embarked on a nineteen city tour of Southern Illinois.
And one of the towns we went to was a place called Cairo, which,
as many of you might know, achieved a certain notoriety during the
late 60s and early 70s as having one of the worst racial climates
in the country. You had an active white citizen's council there,
you had cross burnings, Jewish families were being harassed, you
had segregated schools, race riots, you name it - it was going on
And we're riding down to Cairo and Dick Durbin turns
to me and says, "Let me tell you about the first time I went
to Cairo. It was about 30 years ago. I was 23 years old and Paul
Simon, who was Lieutenant Governor at the time, sent me down there
to investigate what could be done to improve the racial climate
And Dick tells me how he diligently goes down there
and gets picked up by a local resident who takes him to his motel.
And as Dick's getting out of the car, the driver says "excuse
me, let me just give you a piece of advice. Don't use the phone
in your motel room because the switchboard operator is a member
of the white citizen's council, and they'll report on anything you
Well, this obviously makes Dick Durbin upset, but
he's a brave young man, so he checks in to his room, unpacks his
bags and a few minutes later he hears a knock on the door. He opens
up the door and there's a guy standing there who just stares at
Dick for a second, and then says, "What the hell are you doing
here?" and walks away.
Well, now Dick is really feeling concerned and so
am I because as he's telling me this story, we're pulling in to
Cairo. So I'm wondering what kind of reception we're going to get.
And we wind our way through the town and we go past the old courthouse,
take a turn and suddenly we're in a big parking lot and about 300
people are standing there. About a fourth of them are black and
three fourths are white and they all are about the age where they
would have been active participants in the epic struggle that had
taken place thirty years earlier.
And as we pull closer, I see something. All of these
people are wearing these little buttons that say "Obama for
U.S. Senate." And they start smiling. And they start waving.
And Dick and I looked at each other and didn't have to say a thing.
Because if you told Dick thirty years ago that he - the son of Lithuania
immigrants born into very modest means in east St. Louis - would
be returning to Cairo as a sitting United States Senator, and that
he would have in tow a black guy born in Hawaii with a father from
Kenya and a mother from Kansas named Barack Obama, no one would
have believed it.
But it happened. And it happened because John Lewis
and scores of brave Americans stood on that bridge and lived to
You know, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, when the
march finally reached Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to
the crowd of thousands and said "The arc of the moral universe
is long, but it bends towards justice." He's right, but you
know what? It doesn't bend on its own. It bends because we help
it bend that way. Because people like John Lewis and Hosea Williams
and Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks and
thousands of ordinary Americans with extraordinary courage have
helped bend it that way. And as their examples call out to us from
across the generations, we continue to progress as a people because
they inspire us to take our own two hands and bend that arc. Thank
you John. May God Bless you, and may God Bless these United States