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49th Commemoration of "Bloody Sunday"

Secretary Anthony Foxx

Remarks on the 49th Commemoration of "Bloody Sunday"

Selma, AL • March 9, 2014
Remarks as prepared for delivery

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thank you Congresswoman Sewell for the introduction – and to Bishop Davis and Pastor Leodis Strong, my thanks, as well, for welcoming me to the Ninth Episcopal District and to Brown Chapel AME Church.

It’s good to see so many elected officials in the seats today.

Thank you all for your joy and your warmth and for making me feel at home.

THANK YOU  

Several years ago, a young presidential candidate came here and reflected on a passage in the Bible where Moses, at the age of 120 years old, is visited by God.

And God tells Moses that, after a life of slavery and freedom – of parting seas and wandering deserts – he won’t wander any farther. That for him, the River Jordan will go uncrossed. And that he must hand off the search for the Promised Land to a new generation.

And so, hearing this, Moses calls on his son, Joshua… and tells him the news… and he says: “Be strong and of good courage: For, now, you must go with our people.”

Joshua was keenly aware of the shoes he was about to fill.

I have to imagine that he was inspired by his father’s confidence in him and yet troubled at the realization that he was being handed an enormous responsibility and walking in the shadow of a giant.

For me, and an entire generation, this is the story of our lives – walking in the shadows of giants.

I’ve had the good fortune to know many of them, many of whom are here today and some who are no longer with us -- people like Julius Chambers. Franklin McCain. John Lewis. Nathaniel Jones. Dorothy Height. My grandfather. My grandmother. Men and women who stood up – and in some cases, sat down – for freedom, who struggled, marched, gave their blood.

I was not here 49 years ago, and I mean that in every sense of the word, I was not here!  I’m a third party beneficiary of the blood shed here.

But I am not – we are not – empty-handed.  We have what Joshua had: The eloquent example of those who came before us. Their midnight prayers and constant vigilance as we learned our history.  The sense that because generations brought us this far, my generation must pick up the torch and keep on pushing.

James Russell Lowell wrote, “When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast, runs a thrill of joy prophetic trembling on from east to west...”

Hundreds of miles and a few years away in North Carolina, I still felt Selma’s deed of freedom trembling; the history is still fresh to me.

I grew up in a house of educators. They knew their history. And they made sure I knew mine. 

I knew the name of Jimmie Lee Jackson… and, even though, I wasn’t born in the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis – and so many others – I knew they and thousands of others marched and bled here … I understood that, but for their sacrifices, I would not be here as the 17th Secretary of Transportation, working with the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. 

So, when I attended an integrated school, I put my best foot forward every day because I wasn’t just representing myself. That there was a whole movement that had made my presence there possible.

And when I was studying to become the first lawyer in my family, I knew I could do it because lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Julius Chambers had done it well before me.

And when Harvey Gantt ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990, it was the memory of the marchers here who spurred me to register to vote. But not only that. They allowed me to imagine that, nearly two decades later, I could be elected mayor of a city in the south. That talent, not race, could decide my fate.

You said to me, here in Selma, in 1965, "Be strong and of good courage."  

So, on behalf of those of us who grew up with new school books in classrooms, who could travel anywhere in America without stopping by a roadside to use the restroom or to sleep, who could apply to a school and not be rejected because of the color of our skin, the blood spilled here was not in vain.  We say thank you.

ECONOMIC AND MORAL CRISES

Seven years ago, as I said, President Obama talked about the Moses generation of the Civil Rights Movement. And he asked an important question: “What is called of us in [the next generation],” he asked, “this Joshua generation?”

A half-century ago, segregation was a moral crisis with economic implications.  This nation was holding an entire people down and – through the unearned suffering of nonviolent protest – our nation learned that when you hold a people down, you hold a nation back. Our generation must know this history and say with a resounding voice, "Never again."

For generations, America, not just African Americans, lost out on the opportunity to create the very competition we covet – in the workplace, in public accommodations, and at the ballot box.

Today, we have an economic crisis with moral implications.  A widening gulf of misery would be toxic to the American economy.

Now – and for the last 40 years, in fact – the black unemployment rate has almost constantly stayed 60 percent higher than the white unemployment rate.           

Today, if you walked into a classroom of poor fourth-graders, eighty percent of them wouldn’t be able read at grade level.

As of the latest count, four-in-ten black students drop out of high school; seven-in-ten black mothers are unwed.

In California, New York, Washington, DC: Even if a worker making the minimum wage slept only 6 hours a night… worked the rest of the time, all seven days in the week… and saved no money for anything other than rent… she still wouldn’t be able to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment.

Now, these struggles aren’t as visible as what happened here 49 years ago.

But they remind us that we still have a long way to go.

The next stage of progress in this country is not just what we can prevent – but what we can do. Not reactive, but proactive.

We have to make sure every child has a shot at a good education… and that our criminal justice system is more just … that our transportation system is bringing people together, not dividing us.

Because there are places where the legacy of injustice is still built into our roads and rails and lines of transit, physically dividing communities from the 21st-century global economy.

AN INTERNAL ADJUSTMENT

But even with all of society’s shortcomings, while men and women of good will debate the right course for our nation, there is something else that calls us now.    

Adam Clayton Powell said: “Freedom is an internal achievement, not an external adjustment."

We should never forget that the Civil Rights Movement required enormous personal responsibility and self-discipline.

In fact, were it not for the hundreds here and elsewhere in the South who died and risked physical death so their children would not die a psychological death, we would not be here today.

Forty-nine-years ago, before the march, the participants came out of church and met in a ball field. And they began to train one another in nonviolent activism. On how to kneel and protect their bodies if attacked. On how to meet physical force with soul force.

Before Rosa Parks sat on that bus, she studied this, too. Just as before King led, he studied Gandhi. And before Gandhi led, he studied Jesus.                                         

They all were masters of self-discipline; they had to keep their cool to show the world the injustice they were facing.

They did not confront these billy clubs and police dogs with their pants sagging. 

The Moses generation knew you could not make progress outside your house, unless you made progress inside your house.                        

And that is as true today as it was then.

So, while we work to improve our education system as a nation – remind our children that, in an earlier time, there was only one school house. And it didn’t matter how old you were – the same teacher taught everybody.  And they had hand-me down books.  And yet, people still found a way to learn. 

And yes, as a nation, we need to address the flaws in our criminal justice system and end sentencing disparities therein.  But tell our children that the best way stay out of jail is to avoid getting into trouble in first place. 

What President Obama is calling our nation to do with his My Brother’s Keeper Initiative is reaching back to do what he can to lift up our children, just as people have been doing informally for years.  The President is reminding our nation that, increasingly, our nation's fate is tied to the fate of our young people, especially our young men of color.  When they succeed, all of America succeeds.  That's a message that even brought Reverend Al Sharpton and Bill O'Reilly together.  By bringing together people, resources, strategies to teach this next generation of young men of color how to grow up to be responsible adults, all of America can win.

But as the President said himself, our young men are going to have to meet us half way.

It’s courage and self-discipline that got us here – and courage and self-discipline will get us where we need to go.

In a larger sense, we must chart a future that makes room – room for the parties to compete for votes, but not by shrinking the electorate.

Room for young people to believe that if they work hard, they can get ahead – but not with substandard schools.

Room for everyone to contribute without regard for who they love.

We must make room in our own minds – in our own houses – and in the larger house of America.

We have to come together to move this country forward.

ONE NATION

After all, a half century ago, that’s what tipped the balance on the bridge.

In the 1960s, black folks were victims of an unjust system. And the impact to the larger society was not well understood.

It took protest to remind us that we are "one nation, under God, indivisible."

They say, “We might have come here on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”

When I think about my lifetime, I can remember moments when our nation came together -- the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the bombing in Oklahoma City, the attacks on September 11, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords or a group of innocent elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut.  In those moments, there was no black, white, Latino, Asian.  No Republican or Democrat. We were one nation, under God, indivisible.

If we can come together in tragedy, we can come together for brotherhood, for progress, for a more perfect Union.

CONCLUSION

When the March that started in Selma 49 years ago conclude in Montgomery, another great American leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed another important question.

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?"

Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?"

Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?"

Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?"

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again."

How long? Not long, because "no lie can live forever."

How long? Not long, because "you shall reap what you sow."

How long? Not long:

Truth forever on the scaffold,

Wrong forever on the throne,

Yet that scaffold sways the future,

And, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow,

Keeping watch above his own.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, because:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;

His truth is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

O, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant my feet!

Our God is marching on.

Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!

Glory, hallelujah! Glory, hallelujah!

Thank you. And God bless you all.

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Updated: Thursday, December 11, 2014