Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on February 8, 2005
This is Black History Month. I look forward to Black History Month each year because it reminds me of my late friend, Alex Haley. Alex Haley died 13 years ago this month. I can still remember his funeral in Memphis, a big crowd was there - people from all over America. There must have been 300 people there who thought they were his best friend. There were thousands of people around America and around the world who thought they were Alex Haley's best friend. He was a remarkable individual. I remember saying that Alex Haley was God's storyteller because he could tell a story, and I remember saying too that I think we just used him up because he was such a generous man with his time. After the funeral in Memphis, a procession drove to Henning, Tennessee, not so far from Memphis - 50 or 60 miles, and we were there at the home where Alex Haley stayed in the summers with his grandparents. The African flute played a beautiful melody; it was cold, it was February. And after the casket was laid in the grave, the stone was put there. And the stone had on it the words that Alex Haley lived his life by: "Find the good and praise it." I remember that afternoon as if it were yesterday even though it was 13 years ago, and I remember Alex Haley as if he were here in this room looking us over. I remember Alex Haley not because of his death during Black History Month 13 years ago but because how he lived his life during Black History Month in the Februarys before 1992. Almost every February would find Alex on an all night red-eye flight to Tennessee from a paid speaking engagement in some distant place so that he could drive to some small town and fulfill a commitment he had made months earlier to a fourth grade teacher to help her students celebrate Black History month. Teachers loved Alex's visits because he had wonderful stories to tell. Stories of Frederick Douglass and of Thurgood Marshall and of Martin Luther King. Of the heroes and heroines, both black and white, of the underground railway. Of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Of W.E.B. Dubois, James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. But the most riveting of the stories Alex Haley told those children were the ones that Alex learned sitting on the porch steps in Henning, Tennessee in the summertime, listening to his great aunts and grandma tell stories of his ancestor Kunta Kinte. He used to say that his Aunt Plus, rocking on the porch telling those stories, could knock a firefly out of the sky at 15 feet with an accurate stream of tobacco juice. Once Alex Haley rode across the Atlantic Ocean for three weeks in the belly of a freighter to try to imagine what it was like for Kunta Kinte to be brought from Africa to Annapolis and sold as a slave. Alex spent 13 years tracing what had happened between the arrival in America of Kunta Kinte, his seventh generation grandfather, and Alex's own birth. Alex discovered one important piece of that puzzle while speaking in Simpson College in Iowa in the early 1970's. He told students and faculty there that he had found the name of the man who had bought Kunta Kinte on the Annapolis dock, but that he could not trace what happened after that. A faculty member arose and said, "Mr. Haley, my seventh generation grandfather purchased your seventh generation grandfather." Alex stayed with that faculty member for several weeks and because of that encounter was finally able to weave together the rest of the story of the struggle for freedom, which became America's best-watched television miniseries, the story of Roots. It is in the spirit of Alex Haley, that I offer this resolution celebrating Black History Month. This resolution honors the contributions of African Americans throughout the history of our country, and recommits the United States Senate to the goals of liberty and equal opportunity for every American, it condemns the horrors of slavery, lynching, segregation and other instances in which our country has failed to measure up to its noble goals, and it pledges to work to improve educational, health and job opportunities for African Americans and for all Americans. African Americans were brought forcibly to these shores in the 17th century. From that dark beginning, however, they have overcome great obstacles, and continue to do so, to take a prominent place among the many people of diverse backgrounds who have come together here to form a single nation. African Americans have made and continue to make significant contributions to the economic, educational, political, artistic, literary, scientific, and technological advancement of the United States of America. I have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the study of American history. I think one of our national tragedies and embarrassments is that our 12th graders score lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress on United States history than on any other subject. We should be ashamed of that. I have worked and will continue to work with my colleagues on a bipartisan basis to change that. This is our opportunity - in a month devoted to Black History - to especially recognize the history of African Americans in this country and to recognize that it is one of the greatest examples of our national quest to reach the high ideals set for us by the Founding Fathers. The Declaration of Independence dedicated us to the proposition that "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness&" Our history is one of striving to reach this lofty ideal. The treatment of African Americans is our most egregious failure. Slavery, lynching, and segregation are all examples of times when this nation failed African Americans, and we failed to live up to our own promise of that fundamental truth that all men are created equal. However, for every time that we have failed, we have struggled to come to terms with the disappointment of that failure and recommitted ourselves to trying again. Where there once was slavery, we passed the 13th and 14th Amendments abolishing slavery and declaring equal protection under the law for all races. Where there once was segregation, came Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act. There are so many moments like these in our history, and it is these moments that we celebrate with this resolution. In addition, I do not believe that we should simply rest on the accomplishments of the past. We celebrate and remember our history so we can learn its lessons and apply them today. Today's wrongs are begging for attention. African Americans in this country face significant and often crippling disparities in education, health care, quality of life, and other areas where the federal government can play a role. The best way for each one of us - and for the United States Senate - to commemorate Black History Month is to get to work on legislation that would offer African Americans and other Americans better access to good schools, quality health care and decent jobs. There is no resolution we can pass today that will teach one more child to read, prevent one more case of AIDS, or stop one more violent crime. However, I hope that by joining me in supporting this resolution, the members of this body will also join me in finding ways to look to the future and continue to contribute to this work in progress that is the United States of America. I don't know what my friend Alex Haley would say about this Senate resolution or that Senate resolution. But I do know how he celebrated Black History Month. He told wonderful stories about African Americans and other Americans who believed in the struggle for freedom and the struggle for equality; he minced no words in describing the terrible injustices they overcame. He said to those children that he had flown all night to see that they were living in a wonderful country of great goals and that while many in the past often had failed to reach those goals that we Americans always recommit ourselves to keep trying. So Mr. President, today I introduce a Senate resolution celebrating Black History Month, and it is in the spirit of Alex Haley that I offer it.