Many people ask me how I was able to overcome the obstacles in my life and I always give them the same answer, god, grandma, hard work, mentors, luck, and sacrifice. I needed all of those things for me to make it.
What I also needed were the people who came before me. I am here because of their sacrifice. Some of them you know their names, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Dred Scott, Thurgood Marshall, Harriet Tubman, Madame C. J. Walker, and the countless others like my grandmother Ann Johnson who lived their life with quiet dignity going about their business, working hard and taking care of their families, with dreams that someday their children and grandchildren would have all the opportunities in the world. These people who weren't rich or famous but worked to change the world for the benefit of generations of people who would never know their names. For the benefit of all of us. Many of us have been lucky enough to have someone in our life who believed in us even when we didn't believe in ourselves.
Sometimes they were family members and sometimes they were strangers who saw something special in you and helped you to find your greatness. That is the challenge that I want to issue to each of you is to pass that kindness on to someone in your life. All of us need support and someone to believe in us. No one does it alone. Be that change in someone else's life.
Martin Luther King Day is about celebrating the greatness of those that came before us, the people whose shoulders we stand upon as we make our way in the world. That day is also about celebrating the greatness that each of us has inside. All the things that we are striving to achieve. But as we celebrated the events and people who have achieved things that just a generation ago would have seemed impossible, like the first black president, Barack Obama, or media mogul Oprah Winfrey, we must not forget the many talented people in our community that have been lost to drugs, violence, lack of opportunities, and bad choices. Life is about choices and success is about making good choices.
We, as the next generation have to take up the mantle and continue to fight for equal justice and opportunity for all. Let me tell you what we are still fighting against. The statistics are sobering: 73 percent of black children are born outside of marriage, 38.2 percent are living in poverty, black men reportedly make up 40.2 percent of all prison inmates, and 40 percent of African-American students don't graduate from high school. For all of the successes we have had there are still significant challenges that our community faces and that's where you come in. Fifty-five percent of black high school seniors attend college and only about 42 percent of black students make it to graduation. Those aren't statistics but real people like you and I. These are individuals that could be the country's great leaders, inventors, or social innovators.
Whatever our challenges and different backgrounds, we have the opportunity to learn the skills and traits to become this generation's leaders and to have a voice in the direction that this country is going. As a leader you will have to work on solving all the problems I just listed but the question is will you be ready when the time comes for each of us to make that difference. I want you to think about what you're going to do next to continue your dreams. Who will you be? A teacher, doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur or a preacher who changes the world?
The best way to honor the legacy that we have been given is to strive to do our best and to give a hand up to those that come after us, just as was done for us by the previous generation.