MLK Durham Unity Rally Remarks
I am very pleased to be here to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday with you. Today, we honor the courageous efforts not just of Dr. King, but also of other American heroes, like my congressional colleague John Lewis, and Rosa Parks, who made her stand on a Montgomery bus some sixty years ago.
We also honor heroes closer to home, and this year we remember the visionary leadership of Durham’s Sharon Elliott-Bynum, who recently passed away. Sharon’s work as founder and Executive Director of CAARE touched the lives of thousands – veterans, the homeless, those in need of medical and dental care. She was truly an angel of mercy in our community.
Every year, and especially this year, our memory is sharpened, our gratitude is heightened, for leaders like Dr. King and Sharon Elliott-Bynum, for all of those determined to break down the barriers to equal opportunity, to make our political system and government not obstacles but vehicles, to promote liberty and realize justice. As President Obama said in his Emancipation Day remarks last month, those who transformed America often have been “plain, humble, ordinary people, armed with little but faith: Faith in the Almighty. Faith in each other. And faith in America. Hope in the face so often of all evidence to the contrary, that something better lay around the bend.”
I was fortunate enough to come of age politically as the Civil Rights movement spread across the land, first as an undergraduate in Chapel Hill, where the focal point was desegregation of theaters and restaurants, and as a staff member in a Senate office a few years later as the federal government finally responded to the calls for social justice – using those same Constitutional amendments we celebrated last month, finally, 100 years later – to underwrite major civil rights and voting rights laws.
My generation and, one hopes, the generations that have followed, learned firsthand that constitutional and legal protections against discrimination can never be taken for granted. They must be interpreted, implemented, and enforced by each new generation, and in this struggle, politics and government often make the crucial difference. They are not optional: we must engage politically, and in this democracy we must figure out how to make government the instrument of our common purpose.
This is a struggle that never ends. Whether in Ferguson, Chicago, or here in North Carolina, black Americans still face daily discrimination, harassment, and violence. Every American should feel protected, not threatened, by law enforcement, and we must ensure that fair and equal justice is accorded to anyone accused of a crime.
Too many African Americans, and other Americans, are still stuck in a cycle of generational poverty that makes it impossible to fulfill the promise of the American dream. We must redouble our efforts to provide support to low-income Americans so that they can go to college, find a good job, buy a house, and build a brighter future for their children.
And just as importantly, we must protect the precious right to vote. Our state has enacted restrictions that make it harder, not easier, to register and vote, laws that in their effects seem eerily similar to the laws that the civil rights leaders fought so hard to cast off.
So I join you here today to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, to acknowledge his tireless efforts and the work of the thousands more on whose shoulders we stand. May we rededicate ourselves to continuing that work, the struggle for “liberty and justice for all.”
The President articulated the challenge eloquently in that Emancipation Day speech, and I will conclude with his words:
We would do a disservice to those warriors of justice – Tubman, and Douglass, and Lincoln, and King – were we to deny that the scars of our nation’s original sin are still with us today. We condemn ourselves to shackles once more if we fail to answer those who wonder if they’re truly equals in their communities, or in their justice systems, or in a job interview. We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms. But we betray our most noble past as well if we were to deny the possibility of movement, the possibility of progress; if we were to let cynicism consume us and fear overwhelm us. If we lost hope. For however slow, however incomplete, however harshly, loudly, rudely challenged at each point along our journey, in America, we can create the change we seek. All it requires is that our generation be willing to do what those who came before us have done: To rise above the cynicism and rise above the fear, to hold fast to our values, to see ourselves in each other, to cherish dignity and opportunity not just for our own children but for somebody else’s child. To remember that our freedom is bound up with the freedom of others – regardless of what they look like or where they come from or what their last name is or what faith they practice. To be honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. [As President Lincoln said], to nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth. That is our choice. Today, we affirm hope.