Congresswoman Barbara Lee joined hundreds of celebrants to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and mark the reopening of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. Below are her remarks from the occasion:
First, thank you for inviting me to be with you at this hallowed ground where years ago, our drum mayor for justice was so tragically taken from us.
“We gather to celebrate and commemorate the man and the movement that changed the soul of America, shattered legal segregation and provided opportunities for many. If not for the movement, I would not be here as the 99th African American member of Congress working side by side with giants such as Congressman John Lewis.
“I’d also like to recognize my great colleague Steve Cohen, your incredible representative from Memphis, my friend since the early 70’s., Dr. Amy Bailey, a great preacher, my friend, Bishop Brown, and to all of you, my brothers and sisters.
“To stand here today fills with me with tremendous pride and humility.”
April 4, 1968 changed my life forever. Like everyone I was shocked, saddened, and angry. Dr. King’s tragic death brought vivid memories of my childhood in segregated El, Paso Texas.
“And also reminded me that I must do more to fight the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism of which Dr. King so boldly spoke exactly one year before his assassination-April 4, 1967 in his speech Beyond Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York.
“I remembered my dad, a military officer, who served in World War II and the Korean War, being turned away at restaurants, in his uniform and with his family because we were black.
“And I remembered the segregated public schools when I was a child, the “colored only” water fountains and my mother and father-again in his uniform-being told they could not buy a house where they wanted to live because of the color of their skin.
“As a proud community worker with the Black Panther Party, I helped challenge the oppression of the poor and people of color and had the privilege to work for Bobby Seal, who is here today, as a fundraiser when he ran for mayor of Oakland.
“That paved the way for Oakland’s first Black Mayor, our beloved the late Lionel Wilson. The Black Panther Party challenged the status quo and was the first to establish a free breakfast program for children which was the precursor for the federal government’s breakfast program. Bobby, I salute your bold leadership.
“While serving as the President of the Black Student Union at Mills College, I met my mentor, the first African American woman elected to Congress, our champion Shirley Chisholm. She was the first woman and first African American to run a serious campaign for President.
“She inspired me to register to vote, help lead the Northern California President Campaign with the Black Panther Party and go to the Democratic Party convention as a Shirley Chisholm delegate.
“Without Shirley Chisholm and many courageous civil and human rights leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Barack Obama would not be our commander in chief today.
“In 1967, Dr. MLK said:
“The bombs in Vietnam explode at home. They destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.”
“His words rang clear when after the horrific attacks of 9-11, Congress was asked to give President Bush and any President a blank check to wage war. Although very difficult, I ended up as the only vote against this open-ended war resolution.
“Later on, I saw our beloved Coretta Scott King, who graciously hugged me and said, “I’m certain Martin would be proud. That was the right vote.” I am still humbled by those words.
“And so today, I am also joined by my remarkable grandsons, Joshua and Jonah Lee and several brilliant young people from Oakland’s Martin Luther King Freedom Center and Dr. Norma Ambriz-Galavez from our designated predominately black institution, Merritt College in Oakland, to thank the foot soldiers and heroes and she-roes of the movement, commemorate the 50th Anniversary of so many milestones in our march toward freedom.
“We come today to recommit ourselves to the struggle for a more perfect union. Yes, for freedom, forward, and to once and for all, rid our country and the world of poverty, racism, and militarism.
“In the words of my favorite gospel, “I ain’t no way tired. We’ve come too far from where we started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy-I can’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”