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Congressional Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Family

Location: Washington, DC

Leaders of the U.S. House and Senate held a ceremony commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and honoring the King family with a Gold Medal Ceremony. Following are Sen. McConnell's remarks delivered during the ceremony, which took place in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda:

"America, as we know, is a land of promise and opportunity. It's a conviction that unites all of us as Americans, and it's one we repeat often.

"But for too long in this country, that wasn't the case for a large segment of our population. And for nearly a century after the end of the Civil War, millions of African Americans continued to be systematically denied the most basic of American freedoms. A cancer of intolerance and injustice was allowed to metastasize while many with the power to stop it weren't looking. Or didn't want to.

"A pastor with a booming voice and potent message helped change all that.

"Through the power of his words and the force of his example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made those who may have wanted to look away focus on what he once called "the long night of racial injustice.' He inspired a generation of young people to action. And he confronted the defenders of segregation head on -- not with violence, but with reason, argument, and an unwavering confidence in the justness of his cause.

"Dr. King knew that his role was not just to expose or to confront injustice, but to prepare the country to actually do something about it. And by the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, the country was ready -- thanks to him and the countless many who took up his cause, convinced, as he once put it, that "civilization and violence are antithetical…'

"Dr. King and his followers may have had to brave jail cells, and fire hoses, and in the case of Dr. King, pay the ultimate price.

"But the sacrifice was never in vain. Change came. Because when Dr. Martin Luther King led marches, people noticed. They listened. And Washington acted.

"Without the mighty strength of this man, convinced of the rightness of his cause, speaking truths for which he -- and those who loved him -- paid so dearly, the course of our nation's history would have been less just.

"So Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deserves as much credit as any President or Senator for the passage of the landmark legislation we commemorate today. But it's also fitting today to recognize those others who worked so hard to make the Civil Rights Act possible. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and many Senators -- whose essential role in this fight is sometimes overlooked.

"Every time I walk into my office, I'm reminded of the heroic role that one of my predecessors as Senate Republican Leader, Everett Dirksen, played in this great effort -- and his famous words when the votes were secured for passage: "Stronger than all the armies,' he said, referencing Victor Hugo, "is an idea whose time has come…[And] the time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing in government, in education, and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied. It is here.'

Near that portrait of Dirksen hangs a portrait of my role model as a young man, John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky. Cooper was another Republican who worked tirelessly to overcome the aggressive effort to derail the Civil Rights Act. For months, adversaries in the segregationist camp held up the bill. But on June 10, 1964, Dirksen, Cooper, and their Republican and Democratic allies in the effort -- men like Hubert Humphrey and Mike Mansfield -- finally prevailed.

"I can still remember watching Senator Cooper round up the necessary votes. It's a powerful memory -- and it was a powerful lesson in how determined men and women can use the Senate to achieve our Founding purpose.

"At important moments in our history, the Senate has served an outsized role in leading us toward the more perfect union we all desire.

"I believe the Senate can be that place again -- and that it must if we're to stay true to the vision of the man we honor today.

"And it's true that politicians sometimes need leaders like Martin Luther King to help focus their attention first.

"So we thank you, members of the King family, for giving us this opportunity to thank Dr. King -- and you -- for that work and that legacy, and for the ideal that inspired him, which we all renew today.

"May we all continue to draw inspiration from the vision and the memory of this great man -- and from the leaders who helped translate that vision into law."

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