A 10 year-old black boy comes rushing back on his bicycle to the safety of his mother after being chased by a group of white boys at a seashore resort. He is 10 years old. His mother and father are domestic servants in the summer home of their employer. The young boy runs into the kitchen crying, telling his mother that "white boys had chased him while riding his bike." They had shouted names at him such as "Nigger," "jiggerboo," "monkey," and "sambo." He is seeking the comfort and safety of his mother.
Much to his surprise, his mother sternly responds to him. She pulls him by the collar to stand before a mirror outside her kitchen door. Standing before the mirror, his mother asks him, "What do you see?" Still crying, he replies "I see you Mama, I see me." His mother again, unsatisfied with his answer, asks him again: "No, tell me what you see?" Now, confused, he cries even more, and repeats what he said before: "I see you Mama, I see me"
His mother interrupts him, "No, what you see is YOU; the most beautiful thing that God has created. Pay no mind to what those white boys said. God created YOU. You are beautiful.
What a powerful reinforcement to that young black boy's self-esteem and self-image. I know because I was that boy.
So, here we are at the Kennedy Center, 71 years later.
Words, when spoken, are the oral paints a wordsmith uses to color the blank communication canvas before him. The choice of words, like the colors of paints, is always a formidable communications challenge.
Sometimes there are events in a person's life that defy the capacity of a "wordsmith" to accurately articulate thoughts they seek to express. Such is the circumstance I find myself in this evening.
Tonight I think back to that 10 year-old boy.
Now, let's fast forward.
It's November 8th, 2008. The TV networks announced that Senator Barack Obama had accumulated sufficient electoral votes to be officially declared "President elect "of the United States.
I was watching the election returns at the home of a faculty member at Stanford University. There were several people assembled, ages 30-75; white, Asian, African-American, Hispanic. Many in the room began to shed tears of joy and jubilation.
I was asked; if I ever thought I would ever live long enough to see an African-American elected President of the United States? "No", I replied. I said, however my tears were from my memories of all those persons, whom I personally knew, who were no longer alive to witness that evening; but, whose work and sacrifice, in some cases their lives, had made possible the election of that extra-ordinary young man, Barack Hussein Obama, as the 44th President of the United States.
People such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Victoria Gray, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, Ella Baker, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, Reverend James Reeb, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, Stanley Levison, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and many more.
Those of us assembled here this evening are beneficiaries of all of those persons who struggled, often 24/7, to insure that America would reclaim its soul. Persons who sacrificed to enable millions of African-Americans, for the first time, to enjoy the benefits of first class citizenship.
It's important to remember such people and their stories. As has been said by others, "if the lions don't tell their stories, the hunters will get all the credit." This is one of the reasons I teach a course, in the Graduate School at Stanford for students getting a Master's Degree in Liberal Arts captioned FROM SLAVERY TO OBAMA -- To insure that the story of our "lions" struggle against racial injustice is told so "the hunters" will not "get all the credit."
This evening I am the beneficiary of the intersection of two great legends and legacies: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Georgetown University's living legend, John Thompson. Their lives both reflect their commitment to the pursuit of excellence. They challenge us to be the very best that we can be.
Over the course of eight decades I have come to agree with Socrates and Abraham Lincoln. Socrates who said "An unexamined life is not worth living" and Lincoln that "in the end, it not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."
"The fierce urgency of now," (Dr. King's words from his "I Have A Dream" speech), is how can WE inspire a younger generation to understand the personal gratification and self-empowerment that can come from the pursuit of educational excellence?
To encourage "the pursuit of excellence;" we should heed the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail" This is the legacy of Dr. King and John Thompson that we commemorate this evening.
St. Augustine of Hippo said that "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are 'Anger' and 'Courage'; anger at the way things are; courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."
We are all trustees for our children "Anger" and "Hope." Our fiduciary duty requires us to protect and safeguard them.
I ask you join to me in encouraging the eternal longevity of "Anger "and "Hope."
I ask also that you never forget the redeeming POWER of Love.
The legacy of Dr. King teaches us that ONLY love can enable forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation, pre-conditions for non-violence.
Finally, I accept this award in the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stanley David Levison. From 1956 until his death in 1979 Stanley devoted his life to the work of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was their "fund-raiser in chief," a writer of draft speeches, articles, chapters in books, for Dr. King, and like me, a close political advisor. We often worked together, 24/7 for Dr. King.
Stanley was white. He was Jewish. Before meeting Dr. King, like many of his generation concerned about social, racial and economic justice, he had been a member of the Communist Party. He irrevocably severed his relationship with the Party shortly before he met Dr. King. Nevertheless, J.Edgar Hoover and the FBI relentlessly smeared him and tried to use his past Communist Party membership to control, interfere and smear Dr. King.
Late at night in Albany Georgia in 1962, Dr. King said to me, "You and Stanley are Winter Time soldiers." I didn't understand what he was saying, and started to reply, when he continued and said "Anyone can stand with you in the warmth of the summer sunshine of August. But, only a winter time soldier stands with you at midnight in the alpine chill of winter."
I began to tear up and said, "Martin, I don't think those words apply to me, but they certainly accurately describe Stanley Levison."
And, so I accept this award in tribute to Stanley David Levison and all those other heroes "Wintertime soldiers" who are not here to participate in this evening's events. THANK YOU.