Senator John Kerry
Remarks As Prepared For Delivery
Martin Luther King Day Celebration
January 20, 2003
What a privilege it is for me to join you in celebrating the life and the personal journey of Dr. Martin Luther King. And what a journey it was - from Boston University where he studied and where his papers are housed today so that all Americans can share in them - to the Ebeneezer Baptist Church - to the Peoples' Campaign on the streets of Chicago - to a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee where so much of our idealism was shattered even as our faith in his vision endured.
I'm proud to say that Martin Luther King touched all of us, but particularly touched the spirit of my generation with his life, his spirit, his activism - and ultimately the lessons and legacy he left behind for us to carry on. For many of us, these were years of change and challenge - too often years of difficulty and division.
Dr. King was there to guide us. The challenge of his civil rights crusade struck a chord with those of us lucky enough to be in college - insulated in many ways from the struggles in the south - and it was Dr. King whose Letter from A Birmingham jail inspired us to make his cause our own - to support the Mississippi Student Voter Registration Project and the Freedom Riders. He challenged us to understand that the images of Bull Connor and his police dogs in Selma brought by television into our living rooms was not someone else's problem, it wasn't a fight that knew borders of state or region, it was an American problem to be addressed in the best spirit of our nation. He told us, "life's most persistent and nagging question is 'what are you doing for others?'" And we tried to respond. We shared his outrage that Ambassadors and visiting diplomats from Africa could land in Virginia en route to our nation's capitol and they couldn't use a public restroom or stop for a drink of water on their drive.
I will never forget my own eye opening experience -- 1963 - driving down the East Coast - through Virginia, and South Carolina, all the way to Georgia - and seeing those signs which introduced me to a different world: "Whites Only." And Dr. King challenged us to be citizens committed to doing something about that divide in our own great country.
Seven letters - Citizena word Dr. King loved because invested in it were our rights and responsibilities -- a calling to be involved. I will never forget - in particular - what Martin Luther King spoke of when he confessed to being what he called a "maladjusted" citizen.
He said that he simply could not adjust to a world sharply divided between the hardworking many and the privileged few. He could not accept an America where discrimination and bigotry still held citizens down. He had not been able to get comfortable with a society that had become complacent in the face of human hardship and suffering.
I remember well April, 1968 - I was serving in Vietnama place of violence -- when the news reports brought home to me and my crewmates the violence back home - and the tragic news that one of the bullets flying that terrible spring took the life of that unabashedly maladjusted citizen.
I've often thought - what if he'd lived? But that's a question we can't answer - except to the extent to which we can commit ourselves to make things as he would have wanted and as we thought they might have been. That
is the challenge - today more than ever.
We should challenge ourselves to ask the question not what would Dr. King have done had he lived, but what would he want us to do the time we have left. I think if Martin Luther King was here today in Richmond he would want more of us feel the kind of maladjustment he felt - and to use the rights and responsibilities of citizenship he helped secure to build a stronger America.
I think we need a new kind of citizenship - Dr. King's citizenshipan impatient citizenship. Impatient that the freedoms we thought we guaranteed in the 1960's seem still to be unsecured. Governor Doug Wilder - the first African American elected governor in the old Confederacy - fought for freedom in Korea, but wasn't free to eat at a lunch counter in America. People gave their blood and even their lives to change that. Since then, another generation of African Americans have given their country their service in Vietnam, in the Persian Gulf, in Kosovo and Bosnia and are giving back to their country today around the globe But here we are more than two years after election day 2000 in Florida, and we need to make clear, the battle for civil rights in America has yet to be won. We must make clear to this Administrationwe're going to live up to our own ideals and honor the service of those in uniform by making certain that every vote is counted in every county in every state in every part of our nation in every election bar none.
We must be impatient. We can't acquiesce. And we need to melt the ice of indifference that leaves three and a half million children living in poverty and creates an unemployment rate for African Americans that's double the national average. We need to melt the ice of inaction that freezes us in place even as nearly 3/4ths of the homicide victims last year
were black men . And I say to you as a former prosecutor that we need to melt the ice of avoidance that allows too many to remain silent even as study after study reveal serious questions, racial bias, and deep disparities in the way the death penalty is applied in our criminal justice system system.
I want to know why so little is being asked of us as citizens to do something about it. I'm tired of being told to wait.
But far too often the ice of indifference - and even division - hardens in Washington, D.C.. The question has been asked in the last weeks: "is the Republican Party ashamed of Trent Lott, or just embarrassed by him?" And the answer seems clear - they were just embarrassed.
How else can you explain a decision to make the first act of as new Congress the re-nomination of Charles Pickering? A judge who thinks our hate-crime penalties are too tough. Who tried to cut the sentence of a convicted cross-burner. I would say respectfully Charles Pickering's appointment is a slap in the face to every American who truly cares about civil rights and justice.
And it only added injury to that insult when the White House moved to undermine the University of Michigan's effort to live by the core conviction that diversity is America's strength. What else can you call the decision to describe Michigan's good faith efforts as a "quota system" when it's not? Over and over again, this Administration tries to substitute the
rhetoric of diversity for a real civil rights agenda.Congressman Bobby Scott put it exactly right when President Bush criticized Trent Lott. He told us that it's not the President's words you need to focus on - it's the actions. Because while compassion is a great thing, it's not enough to feel badly for the child whose school doesn't have enough books - to feel badly for the machinist who can't support his family because he was laid off six months ago and can't find a job - or to feel badly for the single mom who works two jobs but can't afford health insurance. You have to do something about it.
You and I share a different vision for America - an America that's impatient and bold in its commitment to justice and equality.
Just as Martin Luther King dared to dream and challenged a nation to bring that dream to life, Robert Kennedy whose life was linked to Dr. King's, and who was killed less than two months later, shared his vision as he recalled the words of the poet George Bernard Shaw. He wrote: "Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream things that never were and ask why not." Why aren't we dreaming things that never were and asking "why not?"
Today African American families earn two-thirds of white households - about the same gap that existed when Martin Luther King was killed 35 years ago. Why not recognize that the playing field is not level and take affirmative action to bring fairness? We can help up the disadvantaged, without holding others down.
Next year we'll celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education - the case Thurgood Marshall brought to the Supreme Court to make clear there is no such thing as a school system in America that is "separate but equal." But where is the same activism to shine a light on a 'separate and unequal' school system has been built in America to replace it? Instead of condemning another generation to schools that can't succeed, why not guarantee that when a community has no tax base to support its schools we will make good the constitutional right of every child to a first rate education?
And our indifference at home is only magnified abroad. Instead of turning a blind eye to Africa where more than 36 million people are dying of AIDS - just think, Africa has 11% of the world's population but 70% of the population living with HIV/AIDS - why not make the world's only superpower the world's leader in beating this threat to an entire continent?
Instead of embracing symbols that divide us, here in Richmond, where in an important tribute you've memorialized pioneers like Arthur Ashe, why not commit ourselves black and white to breaking a remaining barrier of resistance that stands in the way of honoring Abraham Lincoln? What better way to say that we are all Americans than to build a memorial in the cradle of the former Confederacy to the President who kept the Union together.
I believe we need to reclaim the kind of citizenship. It's a citizenship seared into me 30 years ago when I served with a band of brothers in Vietnam. We were all living together, working together, taking care of each other, kids from Arkansas, Iowa, California, Massachusetts, and a young African American gunner by the name of David Alston, from South Carolina. Color, religion, background, all of it just melted away into an understanding that we were 'Americans.' It shouldn't have to take a war to remind us understand that we're all in this together.
This holiday is meant to be a day on, not a day off. Martin Luther King is remembered best for his words. But it is his actions - and the actions of millions he inspired - that are his greatest gift to America. So let's commit today that we will stop waiting. That we will "melt the ice of indifference." That we will be "maladjusted" in the face of injustice. That we will pull together - all of us as citizen soldiers - to ensure in deeds - not words - that no American will be left behind.
Dr. King led a generation that fought for freedom here at home. The weapons they faced weren't biological or chemical or nuclear. They were fire-hoses and night-sticks and dogs. They braved them with nothing but conscience and guts and determination. They fought and many died so that all Americans might be free.
Now it's time for all of us to apply the same sense of conscience - the same guts - the same determination - and the same impatience - to change our America for the better - and to leave behind our own contribution to the most important word in our society: citizen. Thank you and God bless you.