Thank you. Oh my goodness, I’m very appreciative on a personal level for that wonderful introduction and it is a great pleasure for me to serve alongside such a great leader as Congressman Clyburn. I don’t think there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind that he is a big dog. And he’s a big dog who’s leading the pack for our country and I’m very grateful that he would be here because obviously I am well aware there is a historic football game being played tonight. You know, when I heard that the dinner was going to compete with the game between the University of South Carolina and South Carolina State University, I thought for a moment that it might just be President Scott and me here. But I appreciate that so many of you are committed to the work of the NAACP here in Charleston, throughout the state, and indeed across the country.
And I am deeply honored that I could be with you. I want to thank our two MCs, who have done a wonderful job this evening. Thanks to both Octavia and Rafael. I also want to thank our two musical performers who I thought were unbelievably special, Daniel Davis and Crystal Brown Gibson. It’s wonderful being here with so many elected officials and I’m grateful they are here to be with your mayor, whom I’ve known a very long time and am very proud of the work that has been done under his leadership in Charleston. And of course, it gives me a lot of pleasure to thank Dot Scott and to call her Madame President. I love the ring of that.
And I was very moved by the tribute to your fallen firefighters. Obviously, as a Senator from New York, I have some understanding of the pain and the loss, the grief and shock that losing those nine brave firefighters has caused in this community and particularly to their families. It reminds us every day of the preciousness of life and the both opportunity and obligation each of us has to do our part to advancing the cause of freedom, to caring for one another, for walking our individual journeys with a sense of a destination that is better for everyone. And that’s what the NAACP has done for so many years and now with this 91st annual Freedom Fund Banquet, it continues the tradition. Dot and I went over and met some of the young people, the next generation of leaders for the NAACP, for this city, this state, and this country. I want to thank everyone who understands the mission of the NAACP. It is a big dog, but it’s a dog with a conscience — that’s an unusual combination — calling us to understand that, as Americans, we have to keep faith with all that came before.
The NAACP’s leadership was evident these past few weeks, as you called the nation’s attention to an example of present day discrimination happening in Jena, Louisiana. And the NAACP and people of goodwill everywhere stood up and made sure their voices were heard, asking tough questions about the administration of justice. And yesterday an appeals court heard those voices and it took another look and said justice was not done. Let me be clear, there is no excuse for the way the legal system treated those young people. This case reminds us that the scales of justice are seriously out of balance when it comes to charging, sentencing and punishing African Americans. And we cannot forget this is not over yet. There are still questions unanswered. The case in Jena cries out for a full investigation by the Department of Justice’s civil rights division. And it reaffirms my conviction that the next president must have a justice department devoted to justice and a civil rights division that works for all Americans.
This case reminds us that we have so much work yet to do, America’s long march to freedom, equality and opportunity has been marked by many milestones like the creation of the NAACP, or the Montgomery Bus boycott, the sit-ins at the Orangeburg lunch counter organized by a young Jim Clyburn, that fateful Sunday march across the Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. But these milestones do not mark the end of the journey our country has been on. They are way stations along that journey; the march is not over. And Today, America needs the NAACP and its leadership as much as we ever have before.
I’ve been traveling across our country. I came today to be with you from California; I crisscrossed the country, from one coast to the other, from north to south, and I see the strength and the dynamism of our great nation. But I also hear the voices of so many Americans who are worried about our future. They’re not sure of the direction we are headed and they ask with concern and even insecurity “What’s next?”
They’re aware that we have an income gap that has grown like a chasm in our country. Between the very very best off in America and all the rest of us, and it’s a gap that is even greater between African Americans and white Americans. We have a health care gap. The access to health care is not even in our nation, we all know that. The rates for disease and the failure to treat those diseases is a disparity that we should not tolerate. We have an achievement gap between the rates of graduation and access to higher education, between the gleaming corridors of suburban schools and the deplorable conditions along the corridor of shame. And we have an investment gap when inner cities and rural America are left behind because we are failing to invest in either the physical infrastructure or the human potential. And indeed we even have a democracy gap right now in America. When some Americans, particularly people of color, have to wait at the polls for hours while others down the road or in the next town cast their votes within minutes, there’s something wrong. And as we have seen, most recently, we have a justice gap.
Reverend Darby referred to the disparity in sentencing when it comes to cocaine. Well, that is just one of the disparities.15% of drug users in America are African American, but African Americans make up 53% of all drug offenders sent to prison. So how do we close all of these gaps? How do we move forward toward a more perfect union? Continue that progress that has been the hallmark but we cannot let it stop now. I start with my conviction that our families and communities, our churches and civic organizations, our states, and our country have to work together to help each child live up to his or her God-given potential. That, to me, is the rallying cry for America, but instead of tapping that potential and working to bring America together, too many Americans today feel as though they are invisible — that their problems, their daily struggles, are not covered in the media, not the concern of people in public life or in the boardrooms of America, and indeed that they are being forgotten instead of enlisted in this great American commitment to a better future. Well, indeed that’s what’s happened in the last years. You know, we’ve had an attorney general who doesn’t respect the rule of law or enforce the civil rights laws on the books. We’ve seen Supreme Court justices turn the clock back on Brown vs. Board of Education. Tax breaks have been given for drug companies ahead of health care for poor children. No-bid contracts given to Halliburton, while more than 60,000 people still live in trailers along the Gulf Coast. In short, we have seen the creation of a government that turns American values on their heads — a government of the few, by the few, and for the few.
It breaks tradition because, for us, we want to believe that our government represents all of us, don’t we? It’s taken many years of struggle to get to that point. Most of us in this room tonight were not in our Constitution. It took a long time before we amended it to include, at least on paper, constitutional rights for us all. And to feel as though the clock is being turned back is unacceptable in our country.
This new vision of government that has been propagated in Washington, that Jim Clyburn and I have been fighting against, is called the ownership society. Well, the reality is they own it and want you to work for it. You’re on your own is a better description. If you take the first letters of you’re on your own, it spells yo-yo, and that’s the way a lot of people feel, somebody else holding the string and moving it up and down.
Because if you are a child in a crumbling school along the corridor of shame, you are invisible. And if you’re a young man caught in the brutal revolving door of low skills, no jobs, and a justice system stacked against you, you’re invisible as well. If you’re a mother without health care, a father without a job, a family that can’t get by on the minimum wage, well, you’re invisible, too. If you’re a voter, turned away from the polls for no good reason or voting on a broken machine that doesn’t even record your vote, you’re invisible. And if you’re stuck on a rooftop or stranded at the Super Dome during a hurricane, you’re invisible to this president, even when you’re on CNN.
Well, these people are not invisible to the NAACP, and they’re not invisible to me, and they should never be invisible to the president of the United States. These stories and these concerns should be there on a daily basis in the Oval Office because when we’re invisible to each other, we’re not working together, we’re not rolling up our sleeves and trying to solve problems, we’re not seeing each other or listening, and we are the poorer for it.
We’ve got to get America back into the solutions business. When I was growing up, I believed that my country could do anything we set our minds to, and during my lifetime, I saw many examples of that. I saw a Supreme Court come down with the decision called Brown vs. Board of Education. I saw a president who sent in troops to make sure children could go to school in Little Rock, Arkansas. I heard a president say we’ll send a man to the moon and bring him back safely before the end of the decade. I watched as a president signed civil rights laws and voting rights laws and Medicare and Medicaid to care for the poor and care for the elderly. Republican and democratic presidents alike kept moving us forward. We have been in the grip of a dangerous experiment in extremism the last six and a half years. It has been, it has been a repudiation of the bi-partisanship that together has moved our country. Jim quoted Abraham Lincoln, a great Republican president, and you could pick many others from both sides of the aisle. Our current president campaigned as a compassionate conservative and it turned out he was neither. And we have been paying a price, and this is not about partisanship, this is about being an American again. This is about caring that our country has these challenges and then working to overcome them. Now, all of you in Charleston know how important the ongoing struggle is, and I know later we’ll have a chance to join hands and sing “we shall overcome.” Well that story of that song speaks volumes about the power of working with one another and looking out for each other.
Sixty years ago the workers of the American Tobacco Company here in Charleston were on strike. These women sang a song on the picket line that many people had known as “I’ll be alright” or “I’ll overcome someday.” But the women of Charleston sang it with a very important difference. “We” they sang “we will overcome someday.” And your own Septima Clark would later help change the word “will” to “shall.” And this version echoed across continents and generations, out of the mouths of protesters and the mouths of presidents. “I will overcome” was a fine song but “We shall overcome” moved mountains and changed the world and we need a President who will make that same change in our government — the change from “I” to “we.” We are all in this together, and it’s time we make government work for all of us again. It’s time that we make government a true partner not just with those who are already privileged but with every small town, every small hamlet, every group of people in our country.
I believe that one of the most important jobs of the next President is to define a new vision of prosperity and fairness for the 21st century — a vision for how we restore prosperity for working and middle class Americans who are the heart and soul of this nation and how we can achieve the promise of our founding: that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights.
And here’s what I believe. The foundation of a strong economy is the investments we make in each other — in education, in health care, in jobs and housing. Sarah Ford talked about the problems we’re having across America and the very great difficulty people are facing because of the mortgage crisis. We have so many middle class people who are hanging on and so many who used to be in the middle class falling back into poverty. During the 1990s we saw the creation of twenty two million new jobs and more people lifted out of poverty than at any time in our country’s history. Last month we lost four thousand jobs in America and people are justifiably concerned about what will happen to their home, their health care, their job, their future.
Greatness has come in America from our recognition that it is not rich people who made America great — it is the hardworking middle class and working people who made America great and continues to make us great.
We’ve got to get back to creating good jobs with rising wages and I’m convinced we can do that. We have to move back to fiscal responsibility. Six and a half years ago we had a balanced budget and a surplus. That has been squandered. The President has had two major goals of his presidency: tax breaks for the wealthiest and the War in Iraq. But he has not paid for either. He’s put them on the credit card. The way he’s funded them is to borrow money from the Social Security Trust Fund and borrow money from countries like China every single day. So we are in “hoc” as a nation. We’re borrowing money even from Mexico.
We need to get back to a sense of responsibility in the federal government and then we’ve got to look at how we’re going to create new jobs by a new energy plan that puts people to work in America by going ahead and combating global warming right here at home — something important for coastal states like South Carolina. We need to rebuild our infrastructure and I think that if we had a jobs program based no energy, the environment, and infrastructure, we would put millions of Americans back to work again.
We need to provide a high quality education for every single child, and I want to have a universal pre-kindergarten program that is especially focused on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, I heard the Mayor talking about that. We know that if children get a good quality pre-school education, they stay in school, they do better, and the evidence is overwhelming that with a good quality pre-school program in our country we would cut by 50% the achievement gap between black and white youngsters by the time they graduated from high school.
We’ve got to make college affordable again and I want to brag on the Democratic congress particularly with our leader here, leader Clyburn, the Democratic congress has just passed legislation to lower interest rates and increase the amount of Pell Grants so we can get back to making college affordable again. And let’s not forget all of the decent young people who don’t go to college. Let’s get more apprenticeship programs, more technical programs, they deserve our help to have a job that makes them competitive in the global economy.
I believe we can guarantee every single American quality, affordable health care. It is time. We have 47 million Americans without health insurance. But it’s not just about insuring the uninsured although I believe that is a moral imperative. In some groups that I speak to some people come up to me afterwards and they say “I don’t know anyone that’s uninsured.” I say “Well, go to an emergency room some night and sit in that emergency room and watch people come in because they have no where else to go.” So it is a moral imperative that we come up with a health care plan to cover everyone, but it’s not only that, we have to make sure that the people with insurance actually get taken care of because too many people with insurance when their doctor says they need a certain treatment, the insurance company says no. I have this problem all the time as a Senator. A man from Northern New York called me and said ‘Senator, what have I done wrong, I’ve worked for the same employer for years. I’ve always paid my premiums. My family has always been healthy. Now my son has been diagnosed with a rare disease and the doctors say there’s one place in the country where he should be treated and the insurance companies say they won’t send him there.” Or a mother from Long Island, NY calls and says her daughter has Leukemia and she needs a stem cell transplant but they have to have a donor and it’s expensive to search for a donor and the insurance company won’t pay for the search. So I get on the phone and my staff gets on the phone and we argue with the insurance companies and they’re afraid that we’ll embarrass them and so finally they say “fine, the boy can have his operation and we’ll pay for the donor search”. It should not take a United States Senator to get the health care that a mother and a father need for their sons and daughters.
On Monday I’ll be releasing the third part of my health care plan, the first part is lowered costs for everybody. Premium costs have gone up 87% in the last six years, more and more employers can’t afford to cover people. Insurance is getting more bare bones, so let’s get costs down and let’s improve quality and that includes emphasizing prevention. As Dot and I were walking in, there’s a poster outside that says 25% of South Carolinians have heart disease. We stopped and starred at it. I was shocked at that high figure, Mayor. We’ve got to do more to help people keep themselves healthy.
We don’t pay for prevention in America. If you are diabetic, a lot of insurance companies won’t pay for you to have your feet checked or your eyes checked but if you have to have your foot amputated, they’ll pay for the operation. That’s just upside down and backwards. So we’ve got to get to a point where we are paying for prevention and then we have to cover everybody. I think the time has come because doctors, nurses, hospitals, employers, labor, everybody realizes we are losing jobs in the global economy because we don’t have the health care system that can effectively deliver health care with high value at lower cost. But then we also have to restore competence to our government. Now I never thought that would be an applause line that you stand up and say “we got to get our government to be competent,’ but after Katrina.
We have to end the no-bid contracts, we have to get rid of the cronyism in government and we have to get back to an old fashioned idea of appointing qualified people to the positions they hold in the United States Government. In particular, we’ve got to have a Justice Department that functions again. Today I released my agenda to restore and strengthen the civil rights mission of the Department of Justice. It is a five-point plan that will meet the challenges of this time. The first is to begin undoing the damage of the past years. I want an Attorney General who will conduct a thorough review and report back with recommendations on how to restore the Department’s traditional role in enforcing civil rights and respecting the rule of law.
The Attorney General should also review charges of improper, politically motivated hiring and firing to determine whether laws have been broken. Remember it was Republican U.S Attorneys who really sounded the alarm about all the partisan activity going on in the Justice Department. We cannot have that, ladies and gentleman. We have to believe that justice is blind in America. And we have to fully fund the Civil Rights Division. We’ve got to get back to allowing local communities to look for ways to pursue integration and reduce racial inequality. The court’s action in its recent case was a big setback to voluntary efforts that local communities had adopted themselves; nobody ordered them to, they decided what they wanted to do. And we’ve got to give some money and expertise to local communities to help them figure out how best to fulfill the meaning of the equal protection clause.
I want to lead a great effort to fight discrimination in the workplace. A recent study found a shocking fact. Employers were twice as likely to hire a white applicant with the very same qualifications as a black applicant. And even hired at a greater percentage, white applicants with criminal records over black applicants without one. Anyone who says that we have gotten beyond racial discrimination is not living with their eyes open. I believe we have to shine a bright light on any discrimination, whether it be against people of color or against women and make sure that we truly fulfill our laws, not just by the letter but by the spirit.
I also want to clean up our elections and I have introduced legislation to do that and we’re attempting to get a bill through the Congress. We have to prosecute and punish deceptive practices, you’ve heard about them. People come out of church and there’s a flier on the window, under the windshield wiper and it says you’re supposed to vote on Wednesday not Tuesday. Or people pick up the phone and a voice says “we’re just calling to inform you that if you’re ever even had a traffic ticket you cannot vote.” All kinds of deceptive practices. And then we’ve got the new challenge of the identification requirements, which are in many respects, discriminating against the poor, the elderly. I see that in New York, in New York City we have a lot of people that don’t have a driver’s license because they take the subway and now in order to be able to vote they have to produce something like a driver’s license. So we’ve got to make sure that we are not disenfranchising Americans after having spent fifty years trying to extend the franchise to every single American. I would also like to see us modernize and strengthen our laws against hate crimes and generally reassert our belief that we are stronger when we respect and protect the rights of every single one of us.
And of course we must begin to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home as quickly and responsibly as we can. The reality is this is a sectarian civil war –there is no military solution. Our young men and women who wear the uniform of our country have performed heroically and with great honor and dedication and they have done what they were asked to do. They were given a mission and they have fulfilled it. They were asked to get rid of Saddam Hussein and bring him to justice and they did. They were asked to give the Iraqis a chance for free and fair elections and they did as well and they were asked to give the Iraqi government the space and time to make the political decisions that only the Iraqis can make for themselves. So their mission has been completed. Unfortunately neither the Iraqi government, nor our government, have done what they needed to do politically and diplomatically to deal with the challenges in Iraq.
The people voted for change in November 2006. We have been fighting for change in the Congress. And I hope that the President will work with us to start bringing our troops home, engage in a very concerted effort to get the Iraqis to make the tough decisions they have to make and start a diplomatic process in the region and the world to try to bring more countries into the effort to stabilize Iraq going forward. But if the President does not end the war in Iraq, then the next President must. That has to be part of what happens as soon as possible. So I believe that America is ready for change and it’s change that is part of the American character and experience.
You know, we believe in change. We are the people of the future. When you travel around the world as I’ve been privileged to do, it’s striking how own in places near and far, they are looking backwards not forwards. When I was First Lady and I would represent our country and I would go to meetings with presidents and prime ministers and other dignitaries, often just as an ice breaker, I would say “so how are things going here in whatever country I was in.” I cannot tell you how many times people started their answers by talking about something that happened 500 or 1000 years ago. “Well things are fine except, you know, if it hadn’t been for that war 800 years ago, things would be a lot better.”
We are the people of the future and we need to start acting like that again. There is no problem we face in the world that we cannot meet. If we decide as Americans we will do that. You cannot be a leader if no one is following and right now our country has to rebuild our standing and position in the world because there is no problem we face whether it be global terrorism or global warming or global epidemics that we can take on by ourselves. So it’s important that we give back so that feeling of confidence and optimism that has marked our country over these long centuries of progress and hope.
When Jim was talking about my own life, I did start out as a young lawyer working for a native South Carolinian, Marion Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund and I remember being so struck by how dedicated she and everyone working with her were to making it possible to change lives one at a time. I went door to door finding children who weren’t in school because in those days, so many children were kept out of school if they had minor disabilities, if the had to take care of their siblings. And that was only 30 years ago. We had millions of children who weren’t even going to school. And then we passed the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and we began to reach out to every single child. That’s what I believe we do at our best. We reach out to one another. And I’m going to do everything I can; working with you to make the change happen that America is yearning for. I know it’s not easy. There are lots of reasons why people would stop trying to get health care for everyone or trying to get a new energy policy that took the tax breaks away from the oil companies. If it were easy, anyone would do it. We do it because we are Americans. We can’t let ourselves be stopped by the partisan bickering or the divisiveness or the enormity of the challenges we face. There are those who will say it can’t be done. There always are. But as James Baldwin once noted, “those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” For nearly 100 years, the NAACP has been interrupting the nay-sayers; changing laws and changing lives. That’s why I’m honored to be with you tonight and I’m honored to walk alongside you in the march for justice. I look forward to continuing that march in the months and years ahead. Because it leads to the destination that is America’s destiny — that more perfect union, that place where not only we look at one another and recognize those inalienable rights, but we work to make sure that every single child has a chance to live up to his or her god-given potential. And that Americas goodness and greatness is recognized across the world.
Thank you all and God bless you.