May 1st, 2005
NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner
you. Half a century after the first few hundred people sat for justice
and equality at these tables, I am honored to be here with this
crowd of thousands at the 50th NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner.
Founded at a time
when we were constantly reminded how the world around us was separate
and unequal...when the idea of legal rights for black folks was
almost a contradiction in terms...when lunch counters and bus seats
and water fountains were luxuries you had to fight for and march
for, the 50th anniversary of the Fight for Freedom Dinner reminds
us of just how far our struggle has come.
I was reminded
of this last month, when I had the honor of going to Atlanta to
speak at John Lewis's 65th birthday celebration. Many of the luminaries
of the Civil Rights Movement were down there, and I had the great
honor of sitting between Ethel Kennedy and Coretta Scott King, who
both turned to me and said "we're really looking forward to
hearing you speak." Now that's a really intimidating thing!
And as I stood
up there next to John Lewis, not a giant in stature, but a giant
of compassion and courage, I thought to myself, never in a million
years would I have guessed that I'd be serving in Congress with
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,
black folks would be able to go to the polls, pick up a ballot,
make their voice heard, and elect that Congress.
But we can, and
many of us are here, because people like John Lewis believed. Because
people feared nothing and risked everything for those beliefs. Because
they saw injustice and endured pain in order to right what was wrong.
We're here tonight because of them, and to them we owe the deepest
The road we have
taken to this point has not been easy. But then again, the road
to change never is.
Some of you might
know that I taught Constitutional Law at the Chicago Law school
for awhile. And one of the courses I taught was a course in race
and law, where we chronicled the history of race in this country
and people's struggle to achieve freedom in the courts and on the
streets. And often times my students would come up to me and say
things like, "Boy I wish I could've been around at the height
of the Civil Rights Movement. Because things seemed so clear at
the time. And while there may have been room for debate on some
things, the clarity of the cause and the need for the movement were
crystal clear, and you didn't have the ambiguities you have today.
Because it's one
thing to know that everyone has a seat at the lunch counter, but
how do we figure out how everyone can pay for the meal? It was easy
to figure out that blacks and whites should be able to go to school
together, but how do we make sure that every child is equipped and
ready to graduate? It was easy to talk about dogs and fire hoses,
but how do we talk about getting drugs and guns off the streets?"
This is what they told me.
And of course,
I reminded them that it wasn't very easy at all. That 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 in 1965.
I reminded them
that even within the African-American community, there was disagreement
about how much to stir things up. We have a church in Chicago that's
on what use to be known as State Park Way. After Dr. King's assassination,
the street was renamed to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. But the
pastor of the church - a prominent African-American in the community
- hated Dr. King so bad that he actually changed the address of
And so it's never
been clear. And it's never been easy. To get to where we are today
it took struggle and sacrifice, discipline and tremendous courage.
when I reflect on those giants of the Civil Rights movement, I wonder
- where did you find that courage? John Lewis, where did you find
that courage? Dorothy Height, where did you find that courage? Rosa
Parks, where did you find that 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
Where do you find
I don't know.
But I do know that it's worth examining because the challenges we
face today are going to require this kind of courage. The battle
lines may have shifted and the barriers to equality may be new,
but what's not new is the need for everyday heroes to stand up and
speak out for what they believe is right.
Fifty years ago
this country decided that Linda Brown shouldn't have to walk miles
and miles to school every morning when there was a white school
just four blocks away because when it comes to education in America,
separate can never be equal.
Now that ruling
came about because the NAACP was willing to fight tirelessly and
risk its reputation; because everyday Americans - black and white
- were willing to take to the streets and risk their freedom. Because
people showed courage.
Fifty years later,
what kind of courage are we showing to ensure that our schools are
foundations of opportunity for our children?
In a world where
kids from Detroit aren't just competing with kids from Macomb for
middle-class jobs, but with kids from Malaysia and New Delhi, ensuring
that every American child gets the best education possible is the
new civil rights challenge of our time.
A student today
armed with only a high school diploma will earn an average of only
$25,000 a year - if you're African-American, it's 14% less than
that. Meanwhile, countries like China are graduating twice as many
students with a college degree as we do. We're falling behind, and
if want our kids to have the same chances we had in life, we must
work harder to catch up.
So what are we
doing about it?
When we see that
America has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the
industrialized world - even higher for African-Americans and Hispanics,
what are we doing about it?
When we see that
our high school seniors are scoring lower on their math and science
tests than almost any other students in the world at a time when
expertise in these areas is the ticket to a high-wage job, what
are we doing about it?
When we see that
for every hundred students who enter ninth grade, only eighteen
- eighteen - will earn any kind of college degree within six years
of graduating high school, what are we doing about it?
And when we see
broken schools, old textbooks, and classrooms bursting at the seams,
what are we doing about that?
I'll tell you
what they've been doing in Washington. In Washington, they'll talk
about the importance of education one day and sign big tax cuts
that starve our schools the next. They'll talk about Leaving No
Child Behind but then say nothing when it becomes obvious that they've
left the money behind. In the budget they passed this week in Congress,
they gave out over $100 billion in tax cuts, on top of the trillions
they've already given to the wealthiest few and most profitable
One hundred billion
dollars. Think about what that could do for our kids if we invested
that in our schools. Think of how many new schools we could build,
how many great teachers we could recruit, what kind of computers
and technology we could put in our classrooms. Think about how much
we could invest in math and science so our kids could be prepared
for the 21st century economy. Think about how many kids we could
send to college who've worked hard, studied hard, but just can't
afford the tuition.
Think about all
that potential and all that opportunity. Think about the choice
Washington made instead. And now think about what you can do about
I believe we have
a mutual responsibility to make sure our schools are properly funded,
our teachers are properly paid, and our students have access to
an affordable college education. And if we don't do something about
all that, than nothing else matters.
But I also believe
we have an individual responsibility as well.
use to tell us that being Black means you have to work twice as
hard to succeed in life. And so I ask today, can we honestly say
our kids are working twice as hard as the kids in India and China
who are graduating ahead of us, with better test scores and the
tools they need to kick our butts on the job market? Can we honestly
say our teachers are working twice as hard, or our parents?
One thing's for
sure, I certainly know that Washington's not working twice as hard
- and that's something each of us has a role in changing. Because
if we want change in our education system - if we want our schools
to be less crowded and funded more equitably; if we want our children
to take the courses that will get them ready for the 21st century;
if we want our teachers to be paid what they're worth and armed
with the tools they need to prepare our kids; than we need to summon
the same courage today that those giants of the Civil Rights movement
summoned half a century ago.
Because more than
anything else, these anniversaries - of the Voting Rights Act and
the Civil Rights Act and Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner - they remind
us that in America, ordinary citizens can somehow find in their
hearts the courage to do extraordinary things. That change is never
easy, but always possible. And 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,
and from a strong message of hope.
And when we look
at these challenges and think, how can we do this? How can we cut
through the apathy and the partisanship and the business-as-usual
culture in Washington? When we wonder this, we need to rediscover
the hope that people have been in our shoes before and they've lived
to cross those bridges.
find that hope in thinking about a trip I took during my campaign
for the U.S. Senate.
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 in Cairo.
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 in Cairo."
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 do."
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 cross it.
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 Martin Luther 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.
to all of you here at the NAACP who are busy bending that arc. Thank