Speech

You are here

50 Years Forward

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx's remarks as prepared for delivery, "Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement"
Birmingham, AL, September 13, 2013

Thank you, Gayle, for the introduction. It’s an honor to be here today on behalf of the Obama Administration.

Just being able to say that gives you an indication of the progress this nation has made in the long struggle toward equality. Today in particular we are pausing to reflect on a truly awful moment in that struggle, and in our country’s history, that took place 50 years ago in this city. 

On that day, four sets of parents sent their kids to church--what could be safer? But they did not come home.

An act of senseless violence ended four lives that had really just begun. Four sets of parents never got to see their daughters become women.

I have two kids. Many of you have children, too.  Or grandkids. 

What happened that day—it is the unthinkable.

And people recognized it. When they saw the ashes of the 16th Street Baptist Church, people from all walks of life--all across America--paused. And they thought about what it would be like.

They didn’t think like black parents or white parents.  When they looked at what happened in Birmingham, they were simply parents. The children weren't white or black--they were simply children.

That event, along with others, moved thousands of people to action.  It caused them to wake up and decide that they would settle for nothing less than a fair and just nation.

And it is through the blood, sweat, and tears of so many that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law.  The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. These laws were enacted to codify a basic principle: that we are all the same, that we should all expect a basic level of fairness in this nation of ours.

So, 50 years later, here we are.

We’ve achieved so much, and it is tempting to see our presence here as proof of that. After all, I stand here today as the third African-American Secretary of Transportation, joined by the second African-American Secretary of State, and representing the first African-American president.

So, yes, 50 years later, we live at a time when there is more fairness than before.

But there is also more inequality.

The income disparity between black and white households persists, with Black and Hispanic households on average bringing in $1 for every $2 earned in a White household. The wealth gap is even worse.

And race and ethnicity still influence the odds of receiving preventive care and regular health services in this country.  In 2009, the infant mortality rate for black women was more than double that of white women. And once under a doctor’s care, the color of your skin continues to influence your chances of receiving common treatments—Including angioplasty and bypass surgery for heart disease, and routine medications for kids with asthma.

Under our criminal justice system, the inequalities are no less pronounced. African-American men between 19 and 65 are imprisoned at about six times the rate of their white counterparts.
African-Americans are also more likely than whites to be victims of crime.

The point is this: people still need to be moved to action, and we still need to work for change.

President Obama strongly believes, and I agree with him, that this Administration must do everything in our power to connect all of our citizens to the 21st Century economy.

For some, that means better access to medical care so they can be healthy enough to work. For some it means sending your kids to school with the reasonable expectation that what they learn will prepare them for the world and for work. For some it means safer roads and more reliable transit service.

Transportation hasn’t always lived up to its promise for all Americans. 

At a certain point in our history, interstates were built that divided neighborhoods.  At a certain point, transit systems were built around places where people lived. 

So for a time, the promise of new transportation did not mean the same thing to everyone in a community.

The challenge we face today is how to take a system that at one time codified bias and ensure that it now connects people, creates jobs, and allows people to grab a run on what the President calls a “ladder of opportunity.”

How will we do that?  One bridge at a time.

I can tell you it’s already happening. 

I recently visited Columbus, Ohio, where Mayor Michael Coleman is leading an effort to reconnect the King-Lincoln district in his city. This once-vibrant community was cut off from the downtown area when I-71 was built, leading shops to close and families to relocate.

That was before. Today at DOT, we’re working with the City of Columbus and the State of Ohio on a project that will not only reduce congestion on two interstate highways, but also reconnect the city’s communities once again.

We are working with communities across the country to help ensure that today, new transportation projects are good news for the entire community.

We are also working hard to support 50 Years Forward’s goal of empowerment.

We are working hard at restoration.

You can count on the President to keep fighting for the middle class. And you can count on me to keep fighting for safer, more reliable connections to the “ladders of opportunity” the President is calling on us to build.

Connections that serve Americans from all walks of life—in urban and rural communities.

But this is not a spectator sport. 

As Adam Clayton Powell observed, “Freedom is an internal achievement, not an external adjustment.”

If we want change, it’s on all of us to act.

I’m proud to be working with President Obama to help keep the fairness we’ve gained and cut back on the inequality we’ve allowed to persist.

And I hope you’ll join us in this important work.

Thank you.

Updated: Wednesday, November 13, 2013