Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commemoration Speech
Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commemoration Speech
Thank you for the distinct honor to celebrate a date that memorializes one of America’s greatest citizens.
There are so many to thank. Pastor May, many thanks for inviting me to this very important event. I am very honored to be onstage with so many of Alaska’s civil rights leaders.
Now I must say that watching Mr. Heartwell and listening to this wonderful choir, I'm reminded of some remarks I made recently on the Senate floor.
Each week I recognize an extraordinary Alaskan who has served their community in an exemplary manner. I go to the floor and essentially brag about this person I call the Alaskan of the Week.
A few months ago, it was Pastor Alonzo Patterson. I won’t repeat the speech here—you all know what he has done for decades and why he certainly deserved the honor.
But in that speech I said that I’d be going home that weekend to attend Pastor Patterson’s final service as pastor at Shiloh in Anchorage. I said I was looking forward to listening once again to the power and spirit and beauty of the choir and congregation at Shiloh Baptist Church and their shouts of “Amen!” during the service.
During my speech I let a few “Amens!” go on the Senate floor. Well, the Senate is kind of a staid place. A lot of wide eyes were looking at me. I’m not sure they had heard “Amens!” like that on the floor before.
But the truth is, I know I didn’t do the choir or Shiloh’s congregation justice with my shouts. I also just went to a New Season Christian Center Service this morning with Pastor Tom Leonard—I know I didn’t do them justice, either. You see, I’m Catholic—and when we really want to show some spirit in our masses we do what Catholics view as radical. We break out a guitar. We even have a name for it—a guitar mass.
But when the Shiloh Baptist or New Season choir wants to show some spirit, there is no doubt the heavens hear the beautiful singing, loud and clear.
So thanks to all of you, Mr. Heartwell, Pastor Patterson, Pastor Parker, and Pastor Leonard, for keeping Anchorage in open communication between heaven and earth.
There have been so many wonderful speakers today, with so many powerful words. When I was thinking of my remarks, I thought, “What do I have to share? What do I have to add?” To be honest, I was very honored but also nervous. But if Dr. King taught us anything, it’s that we all have stories to tell. They may not be big stories. They may be quiet stories.
“Find a voice in a whisper,” he told us. Sometimes that whisper comes through history, from the people who came before you, or the people you’ve worked with.
It occurred to me that there are stories all around me, especially because the place I work has been the center stage not only for much of American history, but also for the greatest debates on the defining moral issue of our country: slavery and the struggle for civil rights.
Some of these debates turned out to be more than verbal sparring. For Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a fierce abolitionist, one such debate almost killed him.
In 1856, after he gave a powerful speech denouncing slavery, a Congressman from South Carolina came up behind him and beat him nearly to death with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He never fully recovered.
There are still physical scars on the Senate floor from the fight over slavery. The 100 desks of the Senate are old and steeped with tradition and history.
The desk where Senator Jefferson Davis from Mississippi, who left the Senate to become president of the Confederacy during the Civil War, is still in use on the floor of the Senate. It is always occupied by the senior Senator from Mississippi. If you look closely at the desk, it has a plug a few inches long—a scar from the time Union soldiers from Massachusetts, in 1861, camped in the Senate chamber and one of the officers sought out Jefferson Davis’ desk and shoved his saber right through it.
Most appropriately, a floor below the Senate is a rotunda with the statues of our most important Americans—founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King told us that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Perhaps more than any place in America, the U.S. Senate is where that arc has bent, collapsed and risen again.
Sometimes, the arc is right in front of you. You can see it rising to the heavens, and you can see it bow down back to the earth as plain as day. Other times we don’t even know that we’re witness to the arc until much later in life. And of course, this arc symbolizes the progress, and yes the setbacks, in the centuries-old struggle for civil rights in America.
In my life, there have been times when the progress has been so comprehensive and in plain sight that I didn’t realize it until much later, but other times it’s been right before my eyes, and I knew it.
Let me provide a few examples.
Like many of you, I’ve served in the military for two decades. I’ve never really thought much about the military in civil rights terms. Later in my life I realized that the Marine Corps, like the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard, is an institution where, at its very heart, it doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is, what religion you practice, or what part of the socioeconomic ladder you occupy.
The military isn’t perfect. Like all institutions, it has within it many imperfect people. But its fundamental ethos is this: when you’re a Marine, you’re not a black Marine, or a white Marine, or a Hispanic Marine or a Native Alaskan Marine. You’re just a United States Marine.
As Marines, this ethos has made us stronger. It has made us tougher. And it has made us better.
The first rifle platoon I commanded as a young second lieutenant was about one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic. My platoon sergeant was an African-American Marine named Willis Towns. He was outstanding in every way.
I learned so much from him about leadership. His dream in life was to be the first African-American Sergeant Major of the entire Marine Corps.
He never reached that goal. A few weeks after I attended a Martin Luther King, Jr. ceremony with him in which he received an award for his leadership in the community, he was killed in a training accident.
That was the worst day of my life.
In my small world, the arc of justice dimmed a lot that day. But it didn’t dim for long, for just a few years later the Marine Corps named another outstanding African-American Marine to be Sergeant Major of the Corps.
I remember thinking at the time when the announcement came out—Willis, you did this. Congratulations.
The U.S. military’s emphasis on mission accomplished, very tough training standards that must be met by each individual, and working together to achieve a greater good, fits very closely with what Dr. King taught, which is that we are “all tied in a single garment of destiny,” or much less elegantly, as a tough Marine Corps drill instructor was reported to have shouted at his raw recruits on day one of boot camp:
“There is no racial bigotry here. In my eyes you are all equally worthless! My orders are to weed out all non-hackers who cannot serve my beloved Corps. Do you maggots understand that?”
One of the great things about Alaska’s African-American community and its leaders is that it has so many veterans. Can I ask all veterans in the room to stand to be recognized for their service and to thank them for making the U.S. military one of the most important, but in some ways, unrecognized, civil rights organizations in America?
Another time in my life when the arc of justice had shone so bright, but I didn’t recognize it was during the five years in which I worked for former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice—another incredible leader, who is so well respected by so many, not just in America but around the world.
I remember in particular an event at the United Nations in New York City where I staffed her in a meeting with all of Europe’s foreign ministers. After this meeting, almost every one of these powerful foreign ministers from over 20 countries waited in line to talk with her and snap a photo. They were almost elbowing each other to stand next to her.
I was right behind her watching all of this with immense pride, but not as a moment of civil rights progress, but simply as an American. She was my boss, and I thought the world of her.
Only later did I reflect on the broader civil rights symbolism—a daughter of the segregated South—raised in Birmingham, Alabama—during the height of the struggle for civil rights, with sit-in’s, riots and even bombings happening in her city. Condoleezza Rice was 8 years old when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a local church in Birmingham, killing four school-aged girls. One of those girls, Denise McNair, was a friend of Condi’s. They used to play dolls together.
Over five decades later, through hard work, grace, dignity and intelligence, she rose to become one of the most powerful people in the world, and I watched as all the white foreign ministers of Europe scrambled just to stand next to her. Wow!
The day after I finished working for Condoleezza Rice in January 2009, I went to a parade. It was not just any parade. It was the inauguration parade to celebrate the first African-American President of the United States.
Now, a few of you might be surprised by this, but my view was that whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, this was a momentous day for civil rights in America.
The weather was cold, the sun was shining, and the arc was broad and clear. I wanted my family—my beautiful Athabaskan wife and our daughters—to witness and physically be present at this very important day in American history.
Now, of course, we all know that not all momentous occasions in the struggle for civil rights are good ones.
Let me transport you to Charleston South Carolina, to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—a sanctuary since its founding in 1816. One of America’s most famous places of worship for generations, for over two centuries it has been a beacon against bigotry and hatred.
Affectionately known as Mother Emanuel, the church had provided sanctuary to runaway slaves. It helped educate the black community. Its leaders were lashed and hung, and the building was burned, to be rebuilt from those ashes after the Civil War. Booker T. Washington spoke at the church in 1909. It was the site of a famous rally led by Dr. King.
In 2015, an evil man, a racist man, shot and killed nine people in the church as they were praying during a Bible study.
That was a moment when the angels cried and the arc dipped low.
But it didn’t stay there. A few days later, there was a community service in Charleston that I attended at the invitation of my friend, South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott. There were many in the audience that day, and amazing grace was all around us. It was here in Alaska, too. Alaska’s religious leaders, many on the stage with me today, and their congregations wrote beautiful letters full of hopes and prayers from Alaska’s faith community all across our state, which I was able to present to the AME congregation through Senator Scott.
That day, the hate didn’t win and the arc didn’t stay fallen. That day, the arc was lifted by grace. That day, when we sang Amazing Grace at the end of the service, we all joined hands, across the auditorium and across the country, to sing as one.
The remarkable reaction of the Mother Emanuel AME church—dignity, respect, grace—even prayers for the evil man who killed their fellow parishioners—is an important lesson and example for all of us, particularly as civil discourse in our country has become more coarse and disrespectful.
We can and should vigorously debate important political, social and economic issues in our country. But as I have stated repeatedly, insults, such as personal insults in tweets by the President are not appropriate or acceptable, nor were comments that were morally ambiguous about racist groups that were marching in Charlottesville, Virginia. We should speak out against such statements. They certainly don’t help us as a nation advance many of our shared goals, when such goals often require compromise and good faith from all sides of the political spectrum.
The gold standard of how to debate and advance important political goals through respect, civility and dignity is, of course, the man we celebrate today—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I recently read the eulogy Dr. King gave at the funeral of the four schoolgirls killed by the KKK in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. If there was ever a time an American leader had the right to lash out at his political enemies, it was in the aftermath of this horrific, murderous act.
But he didn’t. He concluded his speech with this: “In spite of this hour of darkness, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow, we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all humanity.”
I want to conclude my speech with an uplifting description of an event that all of us who attended knew right then and there that it was a very important day for civil rights in America: The dedication of the Smithsonian African-American Museum of History and Culture on the mall in Washington, D.C. in September 2016—attended by civil rights leaders, U.S. Presidents, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices, among others. It was spectacular.
As a U.S. Senator, I was allowed to bring one guest. I took one of my staffers, Xavier Mason, a young African-American who I have no doubt will be part of Alaska’s next generation of leaders, who is studying at Oxford right now.
The exhibits in the museum start in the basement. Way down deep you find stories of men, women and children ripped from their countries into the bondage of slavery.
Death. Disease. Destruction. Complete inhumanity.
Then you start to rise closer to the surface. You see America’s fight over slavery. You see how slavery had sapped our collective humanity. But you also begin to see the light. You see abolitionists joining free slaves to implore the American people to end the brutality.
You see a country torn apart, and you see the bloody battles of the Civil War, but you also see the absolute rightness of the cause. People dying for what’s right.
Higher up is the struggle for civil rights. Dr. King marching peacefully on the streets, men and women of all colors joining him.
And then higher yet, Congress passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and later, President Obama taking the oath.
Most of all, you see the beautiful moral arc: with all its ups and downs, right there, all there, in one building.
The march towards that arc is not over. We have much work to do back home and in Washington, D.C. to keep it afloat. But we will march towards it together.