Last week, I was in Atlanta for a day. I went directly from the airport to meet Congressman John Lewis at the King Center, where he and I were to be filmed for a program that Henry Lewis Gates is putting together about our ancestry. As I juggled cell phones dealing with urgencies back in Newark, I approached the visitor's center and instantly felt that I was upon hallowed ground. Amidst greeting producers, the cameraman, museum staff and others, I gathered the gravity of the moment. I stood on sacred soil, in a hall of historic memory across from the legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church, and feet away from Dr. King's final resting place. And I stood, waiting for Congressman John Lewis, a true American hero -- one of my heroes.
What transpired over the next hour will be a cherished memory for a lifetime. I walked with the Congressman, peppering him with questions and listening intently to his firsthand accounts of moments of the modern civil rights movement that have captured my imagination since I was a child.
He told me about the freedom rides and what it was like to escape a bus as a fire bomb filled it with smoke and flames while the doors were blocked with the evil intention that he and other activists would burn inside.
He spoke of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, detailing his recollection of standing on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, facing lines of Alabama state troopers who gassed and beat him and the other marchers. I listened to him calmly tell me how, after having his skull bludgeoned by a trooper's baton, he lost consciousness while amply bleeding that bridge red.
Our conversation continued as we walked past a beautiful statue of Mahatma Gandhi and along the Civil Rights Walk of Fame, where the footsteps of countless heralded leaders are preserved. Congressman Lewis paused at the outline of his feet. He joked about how long it took him to get his shoes back from those who used them to memorialize his actual footsteps into the stone. And then he encouraged me to stand -- upon his block; he asked me to stand -- in his footsteps; he asked me to step forward and stand. And so along a walk of heroes, before a statue of Gandhi, and at the encouragement of a seasoned soldier of the American civil rights movement, I stepped forward and stood.
I am part of a generation that stands on the shoulders of giants. We were born after the modern civil rights movement, after the deaths of Dr. King, after Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Andrew Goodwin, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, and countless others who sweat, bled and died to make real on the promises of our democracy, so that all American children could have an equal shot to make it in this nation. My generation of Americans, the scions of daring dreamers, the children of the fearlessly faithful and the offspring of many of history's most audacious actors -- we, together, drink deeply from wells of freedom, liberty and opportunity that we did not dig.
And now our generation is called to no less of an urgent state of affairs. The dream of our democracy -- advanced and protected by heroes past and present -- is still not yet achieved. We still have yet to fulfill the five words said in our national pledge -- a pledge repeated by our children, like a call to our consciousness, every week in our schools: that we are a nation with, "liberty and justice for all."
Still in America, one's destiny is not determined by merit alone; by how hard one is willing to work, by one's innate acumen or by how much one is willing to sacrifice for their dreams and ambitions. Instead, destinies in America are strongly and even savagely influenced by the zip code one is born in, how much money one's parents have, or put simply, whether one is fortunate enough -- lucky enough -- to have access to decent, safe housing, adequate health care and a thorough education. Frustratingly, decades after some of the most compelling and articulate dreamers gifted our nation progress, we still live in a country where race and socio-economic status are stubbornly, strongly and undeniably correlated with the quality of one's life outcomes.
I live in a part of America with painfully persistent poverty. Every week, I see families of dignity and determination struggling against the kind of outrageous obstacles and brutal barriers that my parents' generation, and ones before that, fought so nobly to eliminate.
I see hardworking kids assigned to schools with little track record of high achievement. Many children press on to inadequate high schools, receiving good grades along the way only to find themselves at a community college where they are told they must take remedial classes -- classes they now have to find a way to pay for.
I see parents struggling with health issues for their kids -- with stunningly high rates of preventable afflictions ranging from asthma to obesity to low birth weight babies -- that are in dramatic disproportion to children born and living in other areas of our state and nation. I see how good, hardworking families live with the kind of fears and anxieties that should not be present in a nation this great and this strong. These parents have legitimate fears; fears of gun violence, fears that their children will meet their demise at the hands of another. Their fears are justifiable because they know from painful community experiences what our national statistics reveal: the leading cause of death for black youths -- unlike children of other races -- is violence.
One of the very hallmarks of our nation is the ideal of E Pluribus Unum. It is a concept that richly flows from the highest ideals of our nation. In America we have a Declaration of Independence, but our history, our advancements, our global strength all point to an American declaration of interdependence. We have advanced not through a romantic rugged individualism, but by the strength of our common will and courageous cooperation, by the fundamental recognition that we need each other. Our mutual prosperity was built on a barn-raising ethic. We are a country of minutemen uniting across regions for national defense and of a people ascending to the moon fueled by daring dreams and a nationwide determination in the sciences and math. From civil rights advancements to liberating Asia and Europe from fascist imperialism, our country has excelled because of bold movements of unity that generation after generation have made us a more perfect union.
Yet, our current state of affairs threatens to derail our democracy and sap our prosperity. When large portions of our nation are struggling with poverty and preventable perils, our entire nation loses. Racial and economic disparities and the gross underachievement of so many in our society do not just cut at the core of our highest ideals -- that we should be a nation where the content of one's character and degree of one's work ethic should determine destiny -- but they also clearly threaten the long term economic strength of us all.
Looking at demographic changes, we see that the majority of our workforce will soon be made up of minorities. In 2010, The Los Angeles Times Reported:
In California, minorities make up 72% of those under age 15. In 2000, they made up 65%. Nationally, 46% of children under 15 are minorities, compared with 40% in 2000. "That's just the barometer of things that are likely to come over the next decade," said Michael Stoll, a professor of public policy at UCLA." Much of the future of labor supply, of leadership in the United States is going to come from groups that historically have not received attention," Stoll said.
Further, the consulting group McKinsey & Company writes in their report, "The Economic Impact of the Racial Achievement Gap":
The underutilization of human potential in the United States is extremely costly. For the economy as a whole, our results show that:
If the gap between black and Latino student performance and white student performance had been similarly narrowed, GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher, or 2 to 4 percent of GDP. The magnitude of this impact will rise in the years ahead as demographic shifts result in blacks and Latinos becoming a larger proportion of the population and workforce.
Put differently, the persistence of these educational achievement gaps imposes on the United States the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession. The recurring annual economic cost of the international achievement gap is substantially larger than the deep recession the United States is currently experiencing. (emphasis added)
If America is to continue to thrive in a global knowledge-based economy, if we are to continue to lead the world in arts and innovation, business and science, technological advancements and countless other fields of human endeavor, then we must ensure that we fully cultivate the greatest natural resource our nation possesses: the genius, ability and boundless potential of all our children.
I believe the greatest threat to our long-term national security is our inability to empower all of our children to compete in this increasingly competitive economic environment -- the more a nation's children learn, the more a nation's economy will earn. We need the productivity of all Americans or America will decline in growth, prosperity and influence. King's dream that a child's life opportunities and outcomes be about character and their commitment to excel and not their race or class is not just an ideological aspiration. It is a pragmatic and essential ideal for the strength, security and prosperity of us all. America will either rise together in mutual prosperity or fall apart in economic and moral decline. As Dr. King more eloquently stated,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Congressman Lewis' generation eventually made it across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and in a turbulent decade, against outrageous obstacles and dire odds, ended de jure segregation. It now falls to our generation to take up our nation's next great challenge -- to bridge a persistent divide that threatens to undermine our nation's long-term strength. It is time for daring, determined dreamers to rise again to our national cause.
But this won't be easily achieved. I confess I feel the sturdy pull to join the ranks of some of my peers who despair that our national politics is broken. There is a broad cynicism in our nation born from what appears to be the hypocrisy of our national leadership. We witness too few leaders seemingly courageous enough to risk short-term political loss in order to achieve urgent long-term societal gains. While there often seems to be possible pragmatic solutions, such solutions seem to fall victim to the absolutism of petty partisanship or to the influence of small well-funded interest groups that pervert policy against the best interests of our nation.
I admit that I also anguish over what has happened to the language of our politics. The word compromise is a curse; words like poverty and race source more discomfort than discourse; "the sacrifice of citizenship" are words that ring like hollow slogans and words like "the consumption of consumers" are valued and vaunted; and what does it say of our political language when a word like patriotism is used more as a weapon to indict than a clarion call to unite.
It often seems that too many leaders are interested in defining other Americans as the enemy of our Nation and not as peers important to our common advancement. I have watched how both Presidents Bush and Obama have been equated to Hitler or other monstrous villains -- outrageous comparisons too often spoken within the mainstream of our political discourse. And I have seen how our politics greatly rewards those who posture to crush their "enemy" while those who seek to create a coalition are seen as weak and even traitors.
But this is not the history that we herald -- I can think of no monuments erected in celebration of these baser streams of our political culture.
And so I pray that the past we do most celebrate is prologue for a future we so urgently need. My hope is that, as we imminently unveil another monument to a hero in Washington D.C. this month, that we awaken the echoes of a generation that sacrificed so much, inspired so many and made our democracy considerably more robust.
But my hopes do not rest on those in Washington. I feel that it would be unfair to place them there. No single elected official is a savior. And to rest the destiny of our nation on 536 actors in two branches of government would belie the history that we seek to celebrate for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial unveiling.
As I sit here in Newark, New Jersey I am more confident than ever that the change we seek must come from neighborhoods, communities and individuals all across our nation. As Ella Baker said, "We are the leaders we have been looking for." Too many of us have come to think that politics is a spectator sport where we can sit back and give color commentary about what is happening. We are being lulled into a state of sedentary agitation, where we are very upset about that state of our nation but we fail to get up and do something about it. And we are allowing our inability to do everything undermine our determination to do something.
I'm fortunate that Newark has prevented me from surrendering to cynicism about our nation. While we have great challenges in our city, Newark has made my faith stubborn and my hope unhinged. Here in our community I have seen how groups like the Manhattan Institute on the right, and grass roots local activists who have never voted Republican, are partnering on innovative programs to help liberate ex-offenders from the expensive and soul sucking cycle of recidivism. This coalition has helped to create a program that has lowered recidivism rates from above 60% to below 10% and resulted in millions of dollars saved in taxpayer and societal costs. I have seen how philanthropists and public education leaders can team up to expand high performing schools and launch promising pilots in other traditional public schools, such as our expanded learning time pilots, so children are studying and working harder -- more similar to those in many of our global competitor nations. And many residents have successfully encouraged me to find common ground with our Republican governor, despite our many differences, and advance in unity around those areas we both agree on. I believe this cooperation has benefited our city more than any furious political fighting could ever have.
But unlike Pollyannaish optimists, my hope for our nation is bound by the realization that no advancement in our country has ever been easy or unanimous; the greater the aim or aspiration the greater the struggle and more difficult the coalition. If we want to see our children thrive, if we want to have a nation where all citizens have access, opportunity, and hope for their own possibilities, then we have much work to do.
I am still frustrated when I see how difficult it is to get people to take relatively simple steps proven to make a difference -- not to take a freedom ride, not to march against club and gas wielding state troopers, not to storm beaches in Normandy or Iwo Jima -- but just to take small increased steps of service that, along with others doing the same, could make a significant difference. For example, consider a proven and powerful organization like Big Brother and Big Sisters which currently has thousands of at risk children stuck on waiting lists for mentors because they can't find Americans willing to give up four hours per month (the amount of time we spend watching one of our favorite TV shows) and mentor one child. One mentor in a child's life significantly raises that child's prospects of academic achievement and dramatically lowers their chances of going to prison, trying drugs or having early, unsafe sex.
King wrote very pointedly:
"It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people."
And so here we stand. In the footsteps and on the shoulders of John Lewis and countless other whites, blacks, and other Americans who, through force of will, and significant sacrifice, delivered unto us a nation of unimagined prosperity, technological advancement, and other heights of human achievement. Next week we will pause, gather, recognize and unveil a monument in memory of a great American man, Martin Luther King Jr. His monument will be unveiled in Washington D.C. However, if you were to visit Memphis, and go to the site where Dr. King was assassinated, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, you would find a simple plaque there, quoting the brothers of Joseph, written in the Bible stating:
Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him...and we shall see what will become of his dreams. (Genesis 37:19-20)
We cannot let our national dream die -- not on our watch. Our generation must now be the dreamers. We too must boldly dream of America again. We must dream with the audacity of our ancestors and the passion of our parents. We must dream with an authentic love that heals, heartens and unifies. And we must dream a dream that is strong, stubborn and relentless. We must dream a dream that can endure the dark and difficult days ahead, for the challenges before us are complex and continue to gather strength and momentum. And we must muster the best measure of our devotion to our nation and do the hard, demanding work necessary to make those daring dreams come true -- so that the next American generation won't fall beneath our feet, foiled by the failings of their mothers and fathers, but rise as we did, standing strong, on the shoulders of giants.