October 01, 2017

Sen Harris in Atlanta: "Let us have the courage to speak truth"

ATLANTA - Today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris delivered remarks at the 150th anniversary of First Congregational Church in Atlanta, Georgia, the second-oldest African-American Congregational Church in the country. During her remarks, Senator Harris spoke about the need to speak truth about the current threats to our values, and how there is more that unites Americans than divides them.

Key excerpts from Senator Harris’ remarks:

·         Let’s speak the truth that when Americans demand recognition that their lives matter, or kneel to call attention to injustice, that that is an expression of free speech, protected by our Constitution, and they should not be threatened or bullied. 

·         And finally, let’s speak truth, another truth. Although in our country today there are forces of hate and division trying to tear us apart, Americans have so much more in common than what separates us. And that is the truth.

·         When we sing the Star-Spangled Banner, we rightly think about the brave men and women from all backgrounds who proudly defend the freedom of those they may never meet and people who will never know their names. When we sing the Star-Spangled Banner, we also think about those marching in the streets who demand that the ideals of that flag represent them too.

Full remarks as delivered below:

Well good afternoon, church. My heart is full. I am so, so very honored to share this 150th anniversary of First-Church. You know, coming to Atlanta for anybody who has held elected office in this country, wherever they may be from, if they are Black, to come to Atlanta is to come home. This is to come home.

So coming here has always been a homecoming for me. Gene Duffy, you’ve been preaching as long as I’ve ever known you, even when there’s nobody listening you just preach. But you are a brother to me, and Naureen a sister me, and I am just so thankful to be here. Kasim is a very dear friend, he is a brother to me. But I will say objectively, that he is one of the finest mayors that this country has ever seen. He truly is. People watch what Kasim does throughout this country, because Kasim has never believed in accepting false choices. He understands you can care about the people and social justice but you can also know that the people need a job so you got to care about the economy. Kasim is somebody who is a leader, who people around the world look to him and ask for his perspective and advice about what we do for the future of America. And you are a dear friend and I cannot thank you enough for all that you are and I am so glad that you married one of the most perfect women that we have ever known and that beautiful baby who is my god-daughter of sorts.

And Paul Howard is here. He and I, when I was a young DA elected in San Francisco, Paul reached out to me and has been a friend ever since and I cannot thank you enough, Paul.

So to Reverend Andrews and Dr. Desiree, I also want to just thank you because I’ve been reading and listening and hearing about your leadership for so long and I was so honored when you asked me to come join you for your 150th anniversary so thank you, thank you, thank you.

So, there’s so much to talk about but I’ll start with this. I think we all know this is really a historic moment in the history of our country. We’re at a pivotal moment.

You know, Stevie Wonder last weekend, I don’t know if anybody heard, he said, “I’m taking a knee for America.”

But then, because we love Stevie, Stevie went on to say, “But not just one knee; I’m taking both knees. Both knees in prayer for our planet, our future, and the leaders of our world.”

So as we pray for our future with Stevie and each other, I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of justice.

You know, all the great prophets spoke about justice. And they spoke about justice in a particular way. They spoke about it with special attention to the Oppressed, the Weary, and the Weak.

And so I want to take as my text today Proverbs 31:9, which says:

“Speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.”

And First-Church understands this point more than most.

Justice is one of the main bricks upon which this church was built.

You’ve hosted the voices of Booker T. Washington to Vernon Jordan, from Calvin Butts to Bernice King.

And the theme of this 150th anniversary, “Building on Purpose”, speaks to the very purpose of this church, the purpose of justice.

First-Church spoke up, only a few years after the Civil War when former slaves founded a little chapel on Houston Street to teach and minister to free men and women.

First-Church spoke up a few generations after the abolition of slavery and established prison ministries, a library, and a kindergarten to lift up the community.

This congregation spoke up 60 years ago and joined a young preacher down the road, drafting the blueprint for what would become the Civil Rights Movement.

And indeed today, First-Church is speaking up, tending to those with HIV, and feeding the hungry.

Now, my background is that I was born in Oakland, California, among and in a place where people also spoke up in their fight for justice.

My parents met when they were graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley and they were active in the Civil Rights Movement. So my sister and I joke we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full time marching and shouting.

And I grew up in Oakland, then, attending the 23rd Avenue Church of God, where we’d learn about caring for the least of these. And I sang in the choir about how faith combined with determination will always see us through difficult times.

My mother was from India, so in addition she would take us to a Hindu temple, to see that all faiths teach us to pursue justice.

And growing up, the heroes of my youth were the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Leaders like Ambassador Young, and lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, and Charles Hamilton Houston, and Constance Baker Motley.

Inspired because of their fight for justice, I attended Howard University, and then law school in California.

And when I finished law school, it came time for me to decide what I would do, and my family gathered around and said, “Okay, Kamala, what are you going to do in your fight for justice?”

And I said, “Well, I’ve decided to become a prosecutor!” Now you can imagine, there were some in my family who thought it a curious decision because of course they thought you should go and be defending folks instead of prosecuting. And some of them put me on trial in a way that I had to actually defend myself with that decision. 

But what I said then, and what I believed then I believe today: law enforcement has such a profound and direct impact on the most vulnerable and voiceless among us. And there is a duty, then, to give voice to the vulnerable, give voice to the voiceless, and give dignity in the process.

So I went on that path, I was elected the District Attorney of San Francisco, and later Attorney General of California, in both positions I was the first woman and the first woman of color. And in doing that work, part of the purpose of doing that work was to create what ended up being national models around what we should do around recidivism and reentry for former offenders.

And a lot of that work was motivated not only because of what I believe we need to do to be smart on crime, which is to understand prevention is one of the best and most effective ways to reduce crime, but underlining it also was the age-old concept that the Bible teaches us, the concept of redemption.

Understanding, we will all make a mistake, and for some that mistake will rise to the level of being a crime. But is it not the sign of a just society that we allow folks a way to earn their way back? That is the concept of redemption. 

And so, it is through all of these life experiences that I am honored to be with you today as a member of the United States Senate, and I’d like to talk a bit then about not only what we must to in terms of being strong of faith but what we must do confront the challenges that are right in front of us.

So the Book of Luke reads, “Shine a light on those living in darkness to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Now, I believe “shine a light” means we must “speak truth.” Even when we know speaking truth will often make people feel quite uncomfortable.

And to be sure, the Book of Luke does not say that the path toward peace will be soft, or easy, or well-paved. Instead, as we know, it is likely most often to be rocky. And probably up a steep hill, like that hill we heard about earlier this morning.

But there’s no question it is a journey we must take. So let’s shine a light, then, and let’s speak truth to allow us to be on a path toward peace.

So as we all know, we are at this inflection moment in the history of our country, like that moment when my parents first met.

And this is a moment, then, that we know where our country is witnessing an assault on our deepest values. An assault on our commitment to equality, to fairness, and to justice. So let’s speak truth.

Let’s speak the truth that we have been reminded of too often over these past few months 

Racism is real in this country.

Sexism is real in this country.

Homophobia is real in this country.

Anti-Semitism is real in this country.

Because unless we speak that truth, we will not confront it honestly.

Let’s speak the truth that there is a systematic attempt to suppress the right to vote in America.

As you remember, in 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and since then, church, there have been ten federal court decisions have found intentional discrimination against voters of color.

One court even said that they “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” And when John Lewis said this is “a poll tax by another name,” I could not agree with him more.

Let’s speak the truth that right now in our country, immigrants are being vilified and scapegoated. And are living in fear that a midnight knock on the door will separate them from their families. Let’s speak the truth.

Let’s speak the truth that while we sit here, fellow Americans in Puerto Rico are suffering without electricity, and with hardly any access to food or water. And let’s speak the truth that just like our friends and relatives in Texas or Florida, Puerto Rico deserves to be a priority.

Let’s speak the truth that the Attorney General of the United States has re-escalated the failed War on Drugs while de-escalating smart police reform and criminal justice reform. Let’s speak the truth.

Let’s speak the truth that when Americans demand recognition that their lives matter, or kneel to call attention to justice, that that is an expression of free speech, protected by our Constitution, and they should not be threatened or bullied.

And finally, let’s speak the truth, another truth, although in our country today there are forces of hate and division trying to tear us apart, Americans have so much more in common than what separates us. And that is the truth.

In fact, earlier this year, I had a conversation with a group of 17 and 18-year-old students when our daughter, Ella, asked me to speak at her high school.

And one student asked this question that broke my heart. It was one of the first questions. She raised her hand and she asked me, “What are we going to do about a divided America?” And it broke my heart.

And I looked at her and I paused for a moment and I said, “You know what? I challenge the premise. I don’t believe we are divided.”

I believe the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us. And here’s how I think about that.

I think about it through the lens of that 3 o’clock in the morning thought. Now, most of us have had it, they call it the “bewitching” hour, Reverend, right? 3 o’clock in the morning when we wake up in a cold sweat with that thing that’s been weighing on us and we wake up thinking that thought. We never wake up thinking that thought through the political party you’re registered to vote with. We never wake up thinking that thought through the demographic that some pollster put us in.

And when we wake up thinking that thought, for the vast majority of Americans, it has to do with just one of a very few things: our personal health; the health of our children or our parents; can I get a job; can I keep a job; can I pay the bills by the end of the month; can I pay off those student loans; can I retire with dignity?

The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us.

And I’ll give you another specific example on this point. I’ve been working on a bill to reform the money bail system in our country.

And for those of you, unlike Josie Duffy, who may not know how it works, it is a system that basically – I’ll give you an example. 

Let’s say a woman goes into a department store and steals something of great value. So it’s considered grand theft, not petty theft. She get’s arrested, because it’s a crime, she get’s charged, because it’s a crime. She goes to jail and she shows up to her first court appearance.

A judge looks at her and says, “Ok, for this crime the bail will be $20,000,” which is the average bail in America. Well the average American does not have $20,000 sitting around.

So her family may be in the courtroom and they’ll say, “Well we got to get Auntie out, let’s go across the street.” To what’s across the street from every courthouse in America, the bail bondsmen.

Bail bondsmen says, “Well I’ll give you the $20,000 but got to give me 10% and you will not get that back.” The average American family does not have $2,000 sitting around.

So what ends up happening? They either beg, borrow, and steal to get that money or she sits in jail for what could be weeks, months, even years awaiting trial. God forbid she has young children at home by themselves. They’ll at the very least be not taken care of, or equally likely, child protective services might take those children.

Or it is also possible that her lawyer may say, “Well, if you plead guilty, you’ll get credit for time served and you can get out.” Even if she has a defensible case, looking at those options, what do you think she is going to do?

So this bill that we are working on, decided that what we’re going to do is replace the money bail system with a risk assessment system, where the judge instead will make a decision about whether this person poses a risk to society.

So being in Washington, D.C., and everything is so partisan I thought, you know, this is an issue that we shouldn’t be thinking about this way. So I’m going to walk down the hall and knock on the door of somebody who might be willing to work on it with me and I knocked on the door of a United States Senator from Kentucky, his name is Rand Paul.

I said, “I’m working on this bill, would you be interested?” and he said “Yeah, I think I would.”

So we wrote an op-ed, we wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times and it got published. And days later – Reverend, I just want to make sure you’re still OK now that he’s working with me – and I said, “How are you doing, how’s everybody responding?” and he said, “Kamala, Appalachia loves this.” Because we have so much more in common than what separates us.

So I believe it is time that we replace the divide-and-conquer and that kind of approach with a new way of thinking. I’ve come up with a little equation which is this: diversity, because we are a diverse country, plus commonality equals unity.

Diversity plus commonality, seeing what we all have in common, will be the path toward our unity which brings us peace.

And so let’s think about it in that way. Let’s think about it and understanding that our fight for justice is something that will be and always has been empowered by our commonality.

Let’s agree that our diversity is our strength, and our strength is out unity.

Let’s agree that in these moments when others are trying to convince us we have nothing in common, that these are the exact moments where we must embrace our commonality the most.

And let’s agree that history has taught us, that the embrace of our commonality builds coalitions across issues, across groups, across Religions, across Races, across Regions.

It is the muscle that powers our movement.

And it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face, and in particular as a Black community. The legacy of the oppressed and oppression has been felt since we arrived in chains.

But we are leaders and I know that we will embrace the role we’ve always played in building coalitions with people knowing we have common goals. Because first, it is the Christian thing to do, no matter how little we have in common with our fellow travelers.

And second, because it is the smart thing to do. When we move forward as a community, when we advance as a family, we become an overwhelming force.

And third, it is the patriotic thing to do.

Building coalitions to wage this fight for justice is about love of country.

It’s about patriotism, and I think there are two definitions of what it means to be a patriot. 

One describes those who condone the conduct of their country, whatever it does 

The other is the kind of patriot I believe us all to be. The kind who believe in the ideals of our country and will fight for those ideals.

So when we fight for the ideals behind the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, that is the very definition of being a patriot.

When we fight for our right to speak out, freely assemble, and peacefully demonstrate. When we fight for a free press that holds the powerful accountable, that is a fight for the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. And that is patriotic.

When we fight for the Right to Vote, guaranteed to every citizen under the 15th and 19th Amendments, we are Patriots.

And when we fight for the equality of each and every one of us, an ideal that Americans fought and died for, that is a fight for the 14th Amendment. And that is patriotic. 

And my final point is this. 

When we sing the Star Spangled Banner, we rightly think about brave men and women from all backgrounds who proudly defend the freedom of those they may never meet and people who will never know their names.

When we sing the Star Spangled Banner, we also think about those marching in the streets who demand that the ideals of that flag represent them too. 

We think when we sing that song about the young immigrant who puts her hand over her heart and pledges allegiance to the only country she’s ever called home.

And we think about women like the women I recently visited at a California state prison. They were making American flags. The kind you see waving over the United States Capitol or down the street at the Georgia state capitol.

And that day when I was looking at those women and talking with them, they were doing everything, by the way, from cutting the fabric to silk screening, and pushing the paint through the stars and the stripes.

And I thought, yes, certainly they have made mistakes but that’s their flag too.

So let us be clear that when we talk about our patriotism and love of country, it is about understanding our commonality, it is about fighting for who we are and most important, it is about fighting for what we can be.

So, First-Church, at this pivotal moment, I say we cannot throw up our hands. Instead, this is a moment in time to roll up our sleeves.

And as the Reverend and I were talking earlier, I’ll say, I’m a realist but I’m also an optimist. And as we read in scripture earlier, “those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.”

So as we shine a light on the path toward peace, let us do so as proud patriots.

Let us have the courage to speak truth.

And together, armed with our commonality and armed with our faith, let us be strong in our fight for justice.

Thank you.