It is truly a pleasure and an honor to be here with all of you tonight. Thank you so much for having me.
I want to start by thanking Congressman Cleaver and Shuanise Washington for their outstanding work and for their introduction. I also want to recognize your terrific CBC Foundation President and CEO, Elsie Scott.
And of course, I want to congratulate this year’s Phoenix Award winners–Attorney General Holder, Congresswoman Brown, Mayor Gantt, and George Lucas. Thank you all for your outstanding contributions to our nation, and we look forward to hearing from you all later this evening.
I also want to take a moment to note the passing of a true leader in this caucus, Congressman Donald Payne. Congressman Payne was a distinguished member of Congress, a visionary chairman of the CBC, and his presence is sorely missed.
And finally, I want to recognize all of the CBC members, past and present, who are with us here tonight. You all are part of a proud tradition, one that dates back not just to the founding of this caucus, but to the beginning of so many improbable journeys to the halls of Congress.
Take Congressman John Lewis, for example. He was the son of sharecroppers. And as a boy, yearning to become a preacher, he gave impassioned sermons to the chickens on his family’s farm.
And then there’s Congressman Louis Stokes who was raised by a widowed mother in Cleveland’s public housing. He served in the Army during World War II. And although he fought under the same flag, he still had to eat, sleep, and travel separate and apart from his fellow soldiers.
And then there’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who almost didn’t make it into this world. When her mother was in labor, the segregated hospital refused to admit her, and they didn’t agree to care for her until hours later, when it was almost too late.
But from so many unlikely places, members of this caucus rose up and lived out their own version of the great American dream. And that is why they came here to Washington. They came because they were determined to give others that same chance; they were determined to open that doorway of opportunity even wider for those who came after them. They came because they believe that there is no higher calling than serving our country, no more noble a cause than that of our fellow citizens.
Now, this work wasn’t always easy, especially in the early years, when many members of this caucus faced challenges they never could have anticipated. For example, back in the early ’70s, Congressman Ron Dellums was appointed to the Armed Services Committee, as was Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. Displeased about having both a woman and an African American assigned to his committee, the chairman at the time added just one seat to the committee room–and he forced the two of them to share it. But Congressman Dellums was unfazed. He said to Congresswoman Schroeder, “Let’s not give these guys the luxury of knowing they can get under our skin. Let’s sit here and share this chair as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.”
Since its earliest days, this caucus has been taking on challenges and leading the way in the urgent work of perfecting our union–fighting for jobs and healthcare, working to give all our children opportunities worthy of their promise, standing up for the least among us every day, and earning the proud distinction as the “conscience of Congress.”
That is the legacy of this caucus. And that’s also what I want to talk a little bit about tonight. I want to talk about how we carry on that legacy for the next generation and generations to come.
Now, back when our great-grandparents were riding that Underground Railroad, back when John Lewis was marching across that bridge in Selma, and Jim Clyburn was sitting in an Orangeburg jail, the injustices we faced were written in big, bold letters on the face of our laws.
And while we may have had our differences over strategy, the battles we needed to fight were very clear.
We knew that to end slavery, we needed a proclamation from our president, an amendment to our Constitution. To end segregation, we needed the Supreme Court to overturn the lie of “separate but equal.” To reach the ballot box, we needed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
So we moved forward, and we won those battles. And we made progress that our parents and grandparents could never have dreamed of.
But today, while there are no more “Whites only” signs keeping us out, no one barring our children from the schoolhouse door, we know that our journey is far, far from finished. But in many ways, the path forward for this next generation is far less clear. I mean, what exactly do we do about children who are languishing in crumbling schools? What about kids growing up in neighborhoods where they don’t have opportunities worthy of their dreams? What about the 40 percent of Black children who are overweight or obese, or the nearly one in two who are on track to develop diabetes in their lifetimes?
What court case do we bring on their behalf? What laws can be passed to end those wrongs?
You see, today, the connection between our laws and our lives isn’t always as obvious as it was 50 or 150 years ago. And as a result, it’s sometimes easy to assume that the battles in our courts and our legislatures have all been won. It’s tempting to turn our focus solely to what’s going on in our own lives and our own families, and just leave it at that.
And make no mistake about it, change absolutely starts at home. We know that. It starts with each of us taking responsibility for ourselves and our families. Because we know that our kids won’t grow up healthy until our families start eating right and exercising more. That’s on us. We know we won’t close that education gap until we turn off the TV, and supervise that homework, and serve as good role models for our own kids. That’s on us. We know that.
But while we certainly need to start at home, we absolutely cannot stop there. Because as you all know better than just about anyone, our laws still matter. Much like they did 50, 150 years ago, our laws still shape so many aspects of our lives: Whether our kids have clean air and safe streets, or not. Whether we invest in education and job training and truly focus on the urgent challenge of getting folks back to work, or not. Whether our sons and daughters who wear our country’s uniform get the benefits they’ve earned, or not.
See, these are the types of decisions that are made by the folks in our city halls and our state legislatures, by folks in our statehouses, in our Congress, and, yes, in our White House. And who’s responsible for selecting those public servants? Who is ultimately responsible for the decisions they make–or don’t make? We are. That’s our job. As citizens of this great country, that is our most fundamental right, our most solemn obligation–to cast our ballots and have our say in the laws that shape our lives.
Congressman Lewis understood the importance of that right. That’s why he faced down that row of billy clubs on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, risking his life so we could one day cast our ballots.
As he put it, ” . . . your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”
But today, how many of us have asked someone whether they’re going to vote, and they say, no, I’m too busy–and besides, I voted last time; or, nah, it’s not like my vote is going to make a difference? See, after so many folks sacrificed so much so that we could make our voices heard, too many of us still choose not to participate.
But let’s be clear: While we’re tuning out and staying home on election day, other folks are tuning in. Other folks are taking politics very seriously. And they’re engaged on every level. They’re raising money. They’re in constant dialogue with elected officials. And understandably, in the face of all of that money and influence, it can start to feel like ordinary voices can’t be heard–like regular folks just can’t get a seat at the table.
But we are here tonight because we know that simply is not true. Time and again, history has shown us that there is nothing–nothing!–more powerful than ordinary citizens coming together for a just cause. And I’m not just talking about the big speeches and protests that we all remember. I’m talking about everything that happened between the marches, when the speeches were over and the cameras were off.
I’m talking about the thousands of hours that people like Dr. King and so many of you spent strategizing in cramped offices late at night. I’m talking about the folks in Montgomery who organized carpools and gave thousands of rides to perfect strangers, folks who walked miles on aching feet. I’m talking about the volunteers who set up drinking fountains and first aid stations on the Washington Mall, who made 80,000 bag lunches for folks who marched on that August day.
I am talking about the tireless, thankless, relentless work of making change–you know, that phone-calling, letter-writing, door-knocking, meeting-planning kind of work. That is the real work of democracy–what happens during those quiet moments between the marches.
And that is how we carry on that precious legacy we’ve inherited–by recommitting ourselves to that day-to-day work that has always paved the way for change in this country.
So that means being informed. It means following the news, learning about who’s representing us and how our government works. Even more important, it means showing up to vote–and not just every four years, but every year, in every election.
As the great Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm once said, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines . . . .” Active and passionate citizen engagement is at the core of our democracy–that’s the whole point. It is the first three words of the Preamble to our Constitution: “We the people.” And over the past two centuries, so many righteous men and women toiled and bled and sacrificed so that every last one of us could be included in that “we.” And today, we owe it not just to ourselves, but to them, to exercise the rights they fought and died for.
So when it comes to casting our ballots, it cannot just be “we the people” who had time to spare on Election Day. It can’t just be “we the people” who really care about politics, or “we the people” who happened to drive by a polling place on the way home from work. It must be all of us. That is our birthright–as citizens of this great nation. That fundamental promise that we all get a say in our democracy, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like–yeah, or who we love.
So we cannot let anyone discourage us from casting our ballots. We cannot let anyone make us feel unwelcome in the voting booth. It is up to us to make sure that in every election, every voice is heard and every vote is counted.
And that means making sure our laws preserve that right. It means monitoring the polls to ensure that every eligible voter can exercise that right.
And make no mistake about it, this is the march of our time–marching door to door, registering people to vote. Marching everyone you know to the polls every single election. See, this is the sit-in of our day–sitting in a phone bank, sitting in your living room, calling everyone you know–your friends, your neighbors, that nephew you haven’t seen in a while, that classmate you haven’t spoken to in years–making sure they all know how to register, where to vote–every year, in every election.
This is the movement of our era–protecting that fundamental right not just for this election, but for the next generation and generations to come. Because in the end, it’s not just about who wins, or who loses, or who we vote for on election day. It’s about who we are as Americans. It’s about the democracy we want to leave for our kids and grandkids. It’s about doing everything we can to carry on the legacy that is our inheritance not just as African Americans, but as Americans–as citizens of the greatest country on earth.
Now, as you all know very well, continuing to uphold our legacy requires constant and sustained struggle and hard work. It requires never-ending patience and determination. But here’s the thing–when you get tired–and you will–when you start to get discouraged–and you will–I just want you to think about the members of this caucus. I want you to think about Congressman Dellums sitting cheek to cheek with Congresswoman Schroeder, debating and legislating like he owned the place.
I want you to think about Congressman Stokes and how he went from a soldier in a segregated Army to a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, overseeing funding to support veterans across this country.
And finally, I want you to think about a photo that hangs in the West Wing of the White House.
Some of you may have seen it. It’s a picture of a young Black family visiting the president in the oval office. The father was a member of the White House staff, and he’d brought his wife and two young sons to meet my husband. In the photo, Barack is bent over at the waist. And one of the sons–a little boy, just about 5 years old–is reaching out his tiny little hand to touch my husband’s head.
And it turns out that upon meeting Barack, this little boy gazed up at him longingly and he said, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” And Barack replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” So he bent way down so the little boy could feel his hair. And after touching my husband’s head, the little boy exclaimed, “Yes, it does feel the same!”
Now, every couple of weeks, the White House photographers change out all the photos in the West Wing–except for that one. That one–and that one alone–has hung on that wall for more than three years.
So if you ever wonder whether change is possible, I want you to think about that little Black boy in the office–the Oval Office of the White House–touching the head of the first Black president.
And as we mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, I want you to remember that the house they we’re standing in–the house my family has the privilege of living in–that house was built in part by slaves. But today, see, the beauty is children walk through that house and pass by that photo and they think nothing of it, because that’s all they’ve every known.
Understand this–they have grown up taking for granted that an African American can be president of the United States of America. Now, isn’t that part of the great American story? Isn’t it?
It is the story of continuous, breathtaking progress from one generation to the next. It’s the story of unwavering hope grounded in unyielding struggle. It’s the story of men and women who said to themselves, I might not fulfill my dreams, but if I march, if I stand strong on this bridge, if I endure another night in this jail cell, then maybe my children will fulfill their dreams, maybe my grandchildren will.
It is the story found in Scripture, in the verse in Hebrews that says, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them in the distance . . . .”
So through all the many heartbreaks and trials, all of you, and so many who came before you, you have kept the faith. You could only see that promised land from a distance, but you never let it out of your sight. And today, if we are once again willing to work for it, if we’re once again willing to sacrifice for it, then I know–I know– that we can carry on that legacy. I know that we can meet our obligation to continue that struggle. And I know that we can finish the journey we started and finally fulfill the promise of our democracy for all our children.
Thank you. God bless.