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Remembering the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Honorable Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
Member, The United States Senate
Statement on the Floor of the Senate
January 30, 2003

Mr. President, I rise today to honor an extraordinary man in American history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., without exception, led a fearless life dedicated to the cause of human rights and world peace. His example inspired a generation of Americans to rise above what had been two centuries of injustice and inequality and usher in a new day of enlightenment and freedom. For that great gift, for having imagined what America ought to be and setting us on that course, we will forever be in his debt.

Had Dr. King been spared on that fateful day in 1968, he would have turned 74 years of age this month. He would have watched his children, Martin, Dexter and Yolanda, grow into strong and responsible adults. He would have watched a generation of young people mature into adults, struggling to keep the spirit of his dream alive. He would have seen the birth of an entirely new generation, charged with carrying Americas torch into a new century.

Had Dr. King lived, he would have witnessed, and undoubtedly experienced, countless changes in America and the world . . . but would he believe we had truly arrived at the "promised land" he spoke of in his "I Have a Dream" speech? Or would he find some unfinished business? What would he say?

Would Dr. King still speak of the "debilitating and grinding poverty" that disproportionately affects minority communities? In America today, like America of the 1960s, disproportionate numbers of minorities live in dilapidated housing with low or no income. They have far too few resources to feed their families, to clothe their children, or to pay the price of higher and higher rents, and certainly not enough to afford a down-payment for a home of their own. Too many seniors have to make the unfair and unacceptable choice between heat and prescription drugs. And too few of them have the retirement savings of which they had dreamed. And in these sorry economic times, there is no safety-net, children cant support their aging parents.

What would Dr. King say? We live in the richest Nation in the world, yet certain current economic policies sometimes neglect working-class men and women and turn a blind eye to the poorest among us, all in the name of stimulating our economy. If we want to boost the economy, we should first boost the vast majority of Americans who cant spend because they dont have an opportunity to earn. Our focus should be on providing equal access to professional and educational opportunities, and not on dispensing one-way tickets to low-paying jobs with dead-end possibilities. If we are concerned about our countrys economic health, we should be concerned about economic opportunities for all.

What would Dr. King say? Last year, hate crimes climbed by more than 17 percent, and offenses targeted specifically against Muslims jumped 1,600 percent. Just this month, as the Nation prepared itself to honor the memory of Dr. King, racial threats were mailed to more than 30 African-American churches and businesses in Kansas City, MO. And, sadly, Kansas City is no different than many cities in America. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9,730 hate crimes were reported in the United States in 2001, that is more than 26 hate crimes a day. And it is not counting the untold numbers of crimes that go unreported, nor the numbers of crimes against individuals solely because of their gender or sexual orientation or disability, all of which are not captured under current Federal law.

Hate crimes are not simply crimes against individuals; they are crimes against whole communities and have marked the demise of great nations. To paraphrase Dr. King, "history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals" that tolerated "this self-defeating path of hate." And yet Congress in its infinite wisdom has failed to pass basic legislation that would strengthen the ability of Federal, State and local governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes; failed to remove unnecessary obstacles to Federal involvement in the prosecution of bias-motivated crimes; and failed to give law enforcement the tools it needs to ensure that every American can live in an environment free of terror.

[Page S1799]

And what would Dr. King say of our efforts to make it possible that every American child attend college and receive the benefits that flow from a college education? Four decades after Ole Miss and the University of Alabama admitted their first minority students, some are arguing that universities cannot seek to promote a diverse campus atmosphere by considering race, among many other factors, in assembling its student body. I was disappointed when the President announced to the nation that he would authorize the U.S. Government to oppose the undergraduate and law school admissions policies of the University> <of> <Michigan>. The administration had an opportunity to send a powerful message to the Nation, namely that, partisan politics aside, the attainment of diverse student bodies at Americas universities is in our greatest national interest. I disagree with his decision.

The Presidents reason for opposing the Michigan admissions system was because it mandated racial quotas. It does not. As the universitys president, Mary Sue Coleman, noted in her response to President Bushs misstatement, the universitys admissions system "is a complex process that takes many factors into account and considers the entire background of each applicant. . . . We do not have, and never had, quotas or numerical targets in either the undergraduate or Law School admissions programs. Academic qualifications are the overwhelming consideration for admission to both programs."

No, this debate is not about quotas. Rather, it is about educators judgments about how best to teach and stimulate the curiosity of Americas college students. It is about how to nurture critical thinking, how to ignite students intellectual imagination. I have said it many times before, but now I have the social science data to back it up: the greatest benefactor of a diverse student community is not the individual student who gets some plus-factor on his admissions application; it is the wider college community that gains immensely from learning in an environment with different types of people, with different types of life experiences. And anyone who would suggest that an individuals race does not contribute to ones life experience would be sadly mistaken, because, even in the 21st century, diversity matters.

This debate is about how to make Americas promise real for all her children. Tellingly, when asked about the lawsuits against the <University> <of> <Michigan, Dr. Kings widow, Coretta Scott King, noted quite poignantly that affirmative action is "an important part toward eliminating discrimination." She is right. To the extent that Whites and minorities sometimes experience life differently, in other words, to the extent that there are Black-White gaps in poverty rates, in income levels, in access to quality health care, in life expectancy, in rates of imprisonment, in any number of life indicators, those gaps narrow considerably when minorities have increased and equal access to educational opportunities.

Quite frankly, the road that led me from the small town of Scranton, PA, to the hamlet of Claymont, DE, and eventually to the hallowed Halls of the Senate, while rocky and sometimes uncertain, was always paved with possibility. The challenge, my friends, is to make sure every child, no matter their race or ethnicity, no matter their gender, no matter their families socio-economic status, has a chance to travel a road, not necessarily free of obstacles, but certainly full of possibility. We must be vigilant in ensuring that the road for all our citizens is paved with possibility.

In 1957, when Dr. King and a group of others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they chose as their motto: "To save the soul of America." Our charge today is no less urgent. We have to make America what it ought to be. And to do that, we start where our Founders started, by awakening in our hearts that spirit of revolution, of freedom, of democracy out of which America was born, by remembering that Americas promise is only as strong and as real to you as it is to all. Dr. King said it best: "Injustice anywhere is a threat everywhere. . . . Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." My friends, "either we go up together or we go down together."

The questions are really quite simple. I stand with Dr. Kings vision, which calls on us today to make sure that we do all we can to close the gaps in education and economic prosperity.

When Dr. King died that dark day in 1968, honestly a part of me and a part of every American died, too. Riots erupted in 125 cities around the country, including in my home State of Delaware, where the National Guard occupied Wilmington for 10 months, reportedly the longest occupation in the country. But out of that horror and the anguish that followed, a clarion call was heard. We emerged from the riots a stronger and better nation, and with a stronger faith in what is good and right about America.

To my beloved countrymen, I say that, in this season marking Dr. Kings birth, we must remember his legacy. We must continue to raise our voices, continue to speak for the least among us, continue to fight for what is good and right about America.

Mr. President, I rise today to honor an extraordinary man in American history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., without exception, led a fearless life dedicated to the cause of human rights and world peace. His example inspired a generation of Americans to rise above what had been two centuries of injustice and inequality and usher in a new day of enlightenment and freedom. For that great gift, for having imagined what America ought to be and setting us on that course, we will forever be in his debt.

Had Dr. King been spared on that fateful day in 1968, he would have turned 74 years of age this month. He would have watched his children, Martin, Dexter and Yolanda, grow into strong and responsible adults. He would have watched a generation of young people mature into adults, struggling to keep the spirit of his dream alive. He would have seen the birth of an entirely new generation, charged with carrying Americas torch into a new century.

Had Dr. King lived, he would have witnessed, and undoubtedly experienced, countless changes in America and the world . . . but would he believe we had truly arrived at the "promised land" he spoke of in his "I Have a Dream" speech? Or would he find some unfinished business? What would he say?

Would Dr. King still speak of the "debilitating and grinding poverty" that disproportionately affects minority communities? In America today, like America of the 1960s, disproportionate numbers of minorities live in dilapidated housing with low or no income. They have far too few resources to feed their families, to clothe their children, or to pay the price of higher and higher rents, and certainly not enough to afford a down-payment for a home of their own. Too many seniors have to make the unfair and unacceptable choice between heat and prescription drugs. And too few of them have the retirement savings of which they had dreamed. And in these sorry economic times, there is no safety-net, children cant support their aging parents.

What would Dr. King say? We live in the richest Nation in the world, yet certain current economic policies sometimes neglect working-class men and women and turn a blind eye to the poorest among us, all in the name of stimulating our economy. If we want to boost the economy, we should first boost the vast majority of Americans who cant spend because they dont have an opportunity to earn. Our focus should be on providing equal access to professional and educational opportunities, and not on dispensing one-way tickets to low-paying jobs with dead-end possibilities. If we are concerned about our countrys economic health, we should be concerned about economic opportunities for all.

What would Dr. King say? Last year, hate crimes climbed by more than 17 percent, and offenses targeted specifically against Muslims jumped 1,600 percent. Just this month, as the Nation prepared itself to honor the memory of Dr. King, racial threats were mailed to more than 30 African-American churches and businesses in Kansas City, MO. And, sadly, Kansas City is no different than many cities in America. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9,730 hate crimes were reported in the United States in 2001, that is more than 26 hate crimes a day. And it is not counting the untold numbers of crimes that go unreported, nor the numbers of crimes against individuals solely because of their gender or sexual orientation or disability, all of which are not captured under current Federal law.

Hate crimes are not simply crimes against individuals; they are crimes against whole communities and have marked the demise of great nations. To paraphrase Dr. King, "history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals" that tolerated "this self-defeating path of hate." And yet Congress in its infinite wisdom has failed to pass basic legislation that would strengthen the ability of Federal, State and local governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes; failed to remove unnecessary obstacles to Federal involvement in the prosecution of bias-motivated crimes; and failed to give law enforcement the tools it needs to ensure that every American can live in an environment free of terror.

[Page S1799]

And what would Dr. King say of our efforts to make it possible that every American child attend college and receive the benefits that flow from a college education? Four decades after Ole Miss and the University of Alabama admitted their first minority students, some are arguing that universities cannot seek to promote a diverse campus atmosphere by considering race, among many other factors, in assembling its student body. I was disappointed when the President announced to the nation that he would authorize the U.S. Government to oppose the undergraduate and law school admissions policies of the University> <of> <Michigan>. The administration had an opportunity to send a powerful message to the Nation, namely that, partisan politics aside, the attainment of diverse student bodies at Americas universities is in our greatest national interest. I disagree with his decision.

The Presidents reason for opposing the Michigan admissions system was because it mandated racial quotas. It does not. As the universitys president, Mary Sue Coleman, noted in her response to President Bushs misstatement, the universitys admissions system "is a complex process that takes many factors into account and considers the entire background of each applicant. . . . We do not have, and never had, quotas or numerical targets in either the undergraduate or Law School admissions programs. Academic qualifications are the overwhelming consideration for admission to both programs."

No, this debate is not about quotas. Rather, it is about educators judgments about how best to teach and stimulate the curiosity of Americas college students. It is about how to nurture critical thinking, how to ignite students intellectual imagination. I have said it many times before, but now I have the social science data to back it up: the greatest benefactor of a diverse student community is not the individual student who gets some plus-factor on his admissions application; it is the wider college community that gains immensely from learning in an environment with different types of people, with different types of life experiences. And anyone who would suggest that an individuals race does not contribute to ones life experience would be sadly mistaken, because, even in the 21st century, diversity matters.

This debate is about how to make Americas promise real for all her children. Tellingly, when asked about the lawsuits against the <University> <of> <Michigan, Dr. Kings widow, Coretta Scott King, noted quite poignantly that affirmative action is "an important part toward eliminating discrimination." She is right. To the extent that Whites and minorities sometimes experience life differently, in other words, to the extent that there are Black-White gaps in poverty rates, in income levels, in access to quality health care, in life expectancy, in rates of imprisonment, in any number of life indicators, those gaps narrow considerably when minorities have increased and equal access to educational opportunities.

Quite frankly, the road that led me from the small town of Scranton, PA, to the hamlet of Claymont, DE, and eventually to the hallowed Halls of the Senate, while rocky and sometimes uncertain, was always paved with possibility. The challenge, my friends, is to make sure every child, no matter their race or ethnicity, no matter their gender, no matter their families socio-economic status, has a chance to travel a road, not necessarily free of obstacles, but certainly full of possibility. We must be vigilant in ensuring that the road for all our citizens is paved with possibility.

In 1957, when Dr. King and a group of others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, they chose as their motto: "To save the soul of America." Our charge today is no less urgent. We have to make America what it ought to be. And to do that, we start where our Founders started, by awakening in our hearts that spirit of revolution, of freedom, of democracy out of which America was born, by remembering that Americas promise is only as strong and as real to you as it is to all. Dr. King said it best: "Injustice anywhere is a threat everywhere. . . . Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." My friends, "either we go up together or we go down together."

The questions are really quite simple. I stand with Dr. Kings vision, which calls on us today to make sure that we do all we can to close the gaps in education and economic prosperity.

When Dr. King died that dark day in 1968, honestly a part of me and a part of every American died, too. Riots erupted in 125 cities around the country, including in my home State of Delaware, where the National Guard occupied Wilmington for 10 months, reportedly the longest occupation in the country. But out of that horror and the anguish that followed, a clarion call was heard. We emerged from the riots a stronger and better nation, and with a stronger faith in what is good and right about America.

To my beloved countrymen, I say that, in this season marking Dr. Kings birth, we must remember his legacy. We must continue to raise our voices, continue to speak for the least among us, continue to fight for what is good and right about America.

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