A Dream Anew

8/24/2011

by Cory Booker. Mayor of Newark

Originally posted at Huffington Post BlackVoices News Blog:

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.