Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) Delivers Remarks on the 25th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Thank you for that kind introduction. I’m grateful to be here, and I’m proud to stand alongside so many of you who are working so hard in our community to keep the vision of Dr. King alive.
Martin Luther King inspired a generation with his words and he spurred the sleeping conscience of our nation into action with his vision.
In the face of hate, he sowed love. In the face of injustice and oppression, he fought for justice and equality. In the face of brutality, he called for non-violence.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said, and how true those words still are today.
I believe we are all called to fight for the poor, even if we ourselves have found success.
I believe are all called to lift up the oppressed and exploited, even if we ourselves are privileged.
I believe we are called to look after our immigrant brothers and sisters, remembering that our families, too, were once strangers in this land.
I wonder what Dr. King would say today if he knew about our government locking children in cages and separating them from their parents at the border?
Dr. King called on all of us to do better. To be better. And in the process, he carried us one step closer to finally realizing the promise of liberty and justice for all Americans.
But today cannot only be a celebration of his legacy. Today is not just about looking back — it’s about the present. It’s about the future. Martin Luther King was a troublemaker. He made good trouble. He spoke truth to power. He was eloquent, but he was a man of action.
And he was political. Not in a partisan way — but he organized marches on state capitols and in Washington, D.C. He worked to persuade politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, to be on the right side of history.
I think we would not be true to Dr. King’s wishes if we did not acknowledge and recognize the hard and difficult truth about what’s happening in our country.
After years of progress — a painstaking yet steady climb to the promised land of racial equality and respect for human rights that Dr. King dreamed of — we have stalled. I, like many of you, fear that we are actually sliding backwards.
Let me be very clear here: racism has always been alive and well in America. But we now have a President of the United States who is open and unapologetic in his embrace of racism.
Not only do his actions have consequences, but his words have poisoned our debate. I call it trickle-down racism. And it’s a serious danger to the diverse and tolerant country which so many who came before us gave their blood, sweat, and tears to fight for.
Look at what is happening in this country:
We had someone walk into Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shoot nine black worshippers. Last year, 3 black churches in a single Louisiana parish were set on fire in 10 days.
We had someone walk into Walmart and kill people because they are Hispanic.
We have folks walking into synagogues and Hanukkah celebrations and stabbing people because they are Jewish.
Our LGBTQ friends and neighbors are getting killed in record numbers, including 49 at the Pulse Nightclub in Miami.
Since 2016, we have seen an unprecedented number of hate crimes in communities all throughout this country.
And of course, we have a president who says there is “violence on both sides” in Charlottesville when folks are protesting against neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and their hate-filled beliefs.
Just last week, the president retweeted an image of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wearing a hijab, as if to imply that somehow being a Muslim is something to be ashamed of. I find that disgusting.
We need to denounce this wherever it pops up. We cannot allow the president to normalize this behavior.
This isn’t about some trade bill or a tax cut. This is about our character. This is about the kind of country we want to be.
But we must also be honest with ourselves — President Trump is not just a cause of racism in America — he’s a symptom, too.
He’s a symptom of our public discourse being coarsened by politicians who will do and say anything to get elected, and news personalities that revel in building resentment and victimization among their viewers.
He’s a symptom of the inequality, and the hunger, and lack of opportunity that festers in too many places in America.
But most importantly, he’s a symptom of our silence in the face of injustice, intolerance, and racism when it does not affect us directly.
His election is symptomatic of America’s unwillingness to grapple with our history of institutional racism, and our collective failure to dismantle the systems of oppression that harm communities of color.
We have become a country of mass incarceration and mass deportations — we should be looking to fix these injustices, not make them worse!
I have a poster in my office in Worcester that I bought at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama when I was there a few years back with my colleague and civil rights hero John Lewis who we all pray for. And it simply says the word no — the word she used when she was told to get to the back of the bus.
It is important for us to always say yes when we’re making progress, because yes is a powerful word.
But it’s equally important for us to say no whenever anyone is tying to turn back the clock on the progress we have made.
We can’t all plan protests or organize rallies. But we can all say no.
When we see racism or hate even in our families, we have to say no. When we see it in line at the coffee shop, we have to turn around and say no.
When we see it in our schools; when we see kids being bullied for who they are or what they look like, we can say no.
We can say no at work; when we see prejudice enter the hiring process or employees being targeted for their race or religion.
Even when it’s uncomfortable — especially when it’s uncomfortable — we have a moral obligation to speak up.
I truly believe our kids and grandkids will ask all of us years from now “what did you do?”
“What did you do?”
“Did you say anything when you saw injustice, or did you go along to get along?”
We need to be clear. When we see racism, bigotry, prejudice and hate, we need to name it. We need to talk about it. We need to fight it. And we need to embrace the diversity that makes America strong.
We still have a long way to go until the words “we shall overcome” have become a reality.
Our national motto, woven into the great seal of the United States, is E Pluribus Unum — Latin for out of many, one. Out of many states, we are a single country. But out of many different cultures and religions and languages and colors, we are one family. We must realize that our diversity is our strength, and our unity is our power.
In every chapter of our history, great leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. have called us home to the fundamental truths that unite us all Americans. As we honor his legacy today, we all have to pick up the baton where he left off, knowing that in a democracy, all things are possible when ordinary citizens come together and demand change.
Today , by law , is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is the second federal holiday of the year and a celebration of the life and legacy of a great man.
But if that’s all today is — a celebration of the past — I think we are failing Dr. King. I think today must also be about whether we take action to keep his dream alive in our time.
Let’s leave here today ignited by the “fierce urgency of now,” as Dr. King put it, and mindful of the fact that people who love this country can always change it for the better. Together, let’s say no to racism, intolerance, and hate wherever and whenever they appear.
And let us work for a government, like Governor Mario Cuomo said, that is “strong enough to use words like love and compassion, and smart enough to convert our noblest aspirations into practical realities.” We have a lot of work to do. And while none of us can change the past, all of us can help shape the future.
Despite everything, I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because I believe in the goodness of the people in this room, in our commonwealth, and in our country. Together, we can move our country forward in a way that lives up to the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the man we are honoring today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.