Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. And I want to begin by giving praise to the Almighty for the blessings he has bestowed upon us as a congregation, as a people, and as a nation. and I thank you so much, Reverend Armstrong, for welcoming me to this historic church.
And I thank the First Baptist Church family for opening your hearts and your home to me and to so many visitors today. I have to confess that I did seek dispensation from Reverend Armstrong to come because you know, I’m a Methodist. And I’m in one of those mixed marriages. And my husband, who sends greetings to all of you today, felt it necessary to call the Reverend to make sure that was all right. And thank you, reverend, for being so broad-minded and understanding.
It is also a great honor to be here with so many distinguished members of the clergy, elected officials, leaders of the civil rights movement, today, tomorrow, and yesterday. President Steele, I could have listened all afternoon. That pulse that you found so faint you have brought back to life. And all of us owe you and SCLC a great deal of gratitude.
I think everybody in the sanctuary has been introduced. But I want to just say a word of recognition to some of my colleagues in government who have traveled a long way to be here with us today. Congressman Rahm Emanuel from Illinois and his son Zach. Congressman Anthony Weiner from New York. Congresswoman Gwendolyn Moore from Wisconsin. Congressman Linda Sanchez from California. And the chair of all the mayors in the country, Mayor Palmer from Trenton, New Jersey. I thank them for coming to join with us.
And I have to say, Chairman Chestnut, thank you for the history lesson and for the welcome. I thank all of the board of deacons, the board of trustees and the deaconesses and I appreciate that we are gathered here for another commemoration that is important for us once again to re-enact so we never forget.
I also want to ask for our prayers on behalf of all those who lost their lives in the terrible tornadoes that swept through this state and others and particularly for those young people, those eight students of Enterprise High School who lost their lives, for their families, and on behalf of all those who may still be missing.
I come here this morning as a sister in worship, a grateful friend and beneficiary of what happened in Selma 42 years ago. I come to share the memories of a troubled past and a hope for a better tomorrow.
One that is worthy of the sacrifices that were made here. Today marks that 42nd anniversary. but it also marks, as we have heard, the 50th anniversary of SCLC and the 50th anniversary of the integration of Central High by the Little Rock Nine.
And I have friends with me today from Arkansas who have been with my husband and me for all those years. We know, as President Steele reminded us, that America’s march to freedom, equality and opportunity has been marked by milestones — milestones like the creation of SCLC and the integration of Central High and that fateful Sunday with that march across the Pettis Bridge. But those are just milestones. They do not mark the end of the journey. In fact, it is not over yet. and I believe that for many people today who are mistaken that Bloody Sunday is a subject for the history books, it is our responsibility to make it clear to them it is just as relevant today as it was 42 years ago.
Yes, that long march to freedom that began here has carried us a mighty long way. But we all know we have to finish the march. That is the call to our generation, to our young people. As a young girl, I had the great privilege of hearing Dr. King speak in Chicago. The year was 1963. My youth minister from our church took a few of us down on a cold January night to hear someone that we had read about, we had watched on television, we had seen with our own eyes from a distance, this phenomenon known as Dr. King.
He titled the sermon he gave that night “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” some of you may have heard it because he delivered it more than once. He described how the literary character Rip Van Winkle had slept through the American Revolution. And he called on us, he challenged us that evening to stay awake during the great Revolution that the Civil Rights Pioneers were waging on behalf of a more perfect union.
It was sweeping our country, and we would sleep through it at our risk and detriment. Now, I know we’ve been at this a long time. And after all the hard work, getting rid of the literacy tests and the poll taxes, fighting for the right to vote, bringing more people into the economic mainstream, a body does get tired.
But we’ve got to stay awake. we’ve got to stay awake, because we have a march to finish. a march toward one America, that should be all America was meant to be. That too many people before us have given of themselves time and again, to make real. How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise? How can we sleep, while 46 million of our fellow Americans do not have health insurance? How can we be satisfied, when the current economy brings too few jobs and too few wage increases and too much debt? How can we shrug our shoulders and say this is not about me, when too many of our children are ill-prepared in school for college and unable to afford it, if they wish to attend?
How can we say everything is fine when we have an energy policy whose prices are too high, who make us dependent on foreign governments that do not wish us well, and when we face the real threat of climate change, which is tinkering with God’s creation?
How do we refuse to march when we have our young men and women in uniform in harm’s way, and whether they come back, their government does not take care of them the way they deserve?
And how do we say that everything is fine, Bloody Sunday is for the history books, when over 96,000 of our citizens, the victims of Hurricane Katrina, are still living in trailers and mobile homes, which is a national disgrace to everything we stand for in America?
You know, Dr. King told us — Dr. King told us our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Well, I’m here to tell you poverty and growing inequality matters. Health care matters. the people of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans matter. Our soldiers matter. Our standing in the world matters. Our future matters, and it is up to us to take it back, put it in to our hands, start marching toward a better tomorrow!
Now, 42 years ago, from this church and from brown, brave men and women first tried to march. Two days later, Dr. King tried again. Getting as far as the bridge. Then on the third day, armed with judge Frank Johnson’s order, more than 3,000 people crossed the Pettis Bridge. And by the time they got to Montgomery, they were 25,000 strong.
Now, my friends, we must never forget the blows they took. Let’s never forget the dogs and the horses and the hoses that were turned on them, driving them back, treating them not as human beings.
But also don’t forget about the dignity with which they bore it all. They understood the right to vote matters. Now, five months later the voting rights act was enacted by Congress and signed by President Johnson, but we all know it was written on the march from Selma to Montgomery.
It was written by men and women with tired feet and swollen ankles. And it was first signed with their blood, sweat, and tears. We cherish the few, including my good friend, Congressman John Lewis, who still remain with us today, to cross the bridge again. But let us not forget those who have passed on — Dr. King and Coretta, Viola, Ralph Abernathy, Josea Williams and all the others. We remember, too, Jimmy Lee Jackson, whose killing near here was one of the events that ignited the march. and we were the support of this great church and of Reverend Fred, who helped to lead people into justice for all.
So many prayed and stood up for the right to vote. Dr. King said quality for African-Americans would also free white Americans of the staining legacy of slavery. And so it has. In 2000, my husband said here that those who walked across the bridge made it possible for the south to grow and prosper and for two sons of the south, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, to be elected president of the United States.
The Voting Rights Act gave more Americans from every corner of our nation the chance to live out their dreams. And it is the gift that keeps on giving. Today it is giving Senator Obama the chance to run for president of the United States. And by its logic and spirit, it is giving the same chance to Governor Bill Richardson, an Hispanic, and yes, it is giving me that chance, too.
You know, this may be interesting for the legislators who are here, but before Selma and the Voting Rights Act put quality front and center, it was illegal under Alabama law for women to serve on juries. I know where my chance came from, and I am grateful to all of you, who gave it to me.
But in the last two presidential elections we have seen the right to vote tampered with, and outright denied to too many of our citizens, especially the poor and people of color. Not just in Florida, Ohio, and Maryland, but in state after state. The very idea that in the 21st century, African-Americans would wait in line for 10 hours while whites in an affluent precinct next to theirs waited in line for 10 minutes, or that African-Americans would receive fliers telling them the wrong time and day to exercise their constitutional right to vote. That’s wrong. It is simply unconscionable that today young Americans are putting their lives at risk to protect democracy half a world away when here at home their precious right to vote is under siege.
My friends, we have a march to finish. I will be reintroducing the Count Every Vote Act, to ensure that every voter is given the opportunity to vote, that every vote is counted, and each voter is given the chance to verify his or her vote before it is cast and made permanent.
We have to stay awake. We have a march to finish. On this floor today, let us say with one voice the words of James Cleveland’s great freedom hymn, “I don’t feel no ways tired/I come too far from where I started from/Nobody told me that the road would be easy/I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”
And we know — we know — we know, if we finish this march, what awaits us? St. Paul told us, in the letter to the Galatians, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due seasons we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” The brave men and women of Bloody Sunday did not lose heart. We can do no less. We have a march to finish. Let us join together and complete that march for freedom, justice, opportunity, and everything America should be. Thank you and God bless you.