Good evening, everyone. Wow, what an honor!
And thank you so much for that incredibly kind introduction. That’s the type of thing that my husband appreciates and my mother actually believes. Some of you may know that my mom, Lois Rice, who is here tonight, served many years ago on the Joint Center board. That historic symmetry makes tonight especially meaningful for me and my family.
I want to begin by saying thank you – thank you to Ralph Everett for his exceptional leadership, thank you to your top-quality scholars, and thank you to your distinguished Board so ably led by Cynthia Marshall. For as long as I can remember, the Joint Center has produced the pre-eminent analysis of the political, social and economic progress and challenges facing the African-American community. Your research is universally respected. My colleagues and I in the Obama Administration value your analysis and know how helpful it is to setting priorities and making tough decisions.
I’m also delighted to see many friends and colleagues here. I am particularly pleased to join in honoring Representative Marcia Fudge and all the members of the Congressional Black Caucus for their many contributions to our community and our nation. Without the CBC’s relentless advocacy and effective leadership on so many issues, I shudder to think where we would be today.
I must also say that it is always a privilege to hear Vice President Joe Biden. I’ve worked closely with him for these last four years, and I can personally attest that he is truly a great Vice President, a rare leader, and a very special friend. He’s fought for social justice and civil rights for his entire career, and as you heard he’s not stopping now.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m deeply honored to receive the Great American Award named for the titan, Louis E. Martin. Throughout his remarkable career in journalism and government, Martin embodied an abiding dedication to progress and public service. Both are profoundly powerful callings for me and for so many of us in this room. I’m especially moved to be just the second woman to receive this award, after the legendary Dr. Dorothy Height. I’m so grateful to be here in the company of Congressman James Clyborn. It is humbling to be in this group.
I accept this award with deep gratitude for those who came before me, for the opportunities I’ve been given, and for this Center and its vital mission. To put it in President Obama’s terms, the Joint Center has helped us navigate the transition from the Moses generation to the Joshua generation— and to help build the bridge that America has traveled from the time of Dr. King to the age of President Obama.
Yet, we all know: progress doesn’t just happen. It’s the product of collective effort and individual courage—of leaders who call us to greatness and inspire us to sacrifice—of ordinary people who won’t take “no” for an answer or “later” for a timeline. Together, we’ve made major strides. Under President Obama’s leadership, America is creating millions of new jobs after the devastating Great Recession. Health care will be more affordable and accessible. We’ve expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, protected citizens from financial abuses, and helped countless families keep their homes in a depressed market. We’ve increased access to college, the key to economic mobility, by increasing the number of Pell Grant recipients by 3 million or 50 percent since 2008. We’re pressing every day to ensure that equal rights and equal treatment are available for all Americans. We’ve ended the war in Iraq, brought justice to Osama bin Laden, prevented mass atrocities in Libya and helped shepherd the peaceful birth of South Sudan. And we will continue working relentlessly every day to keep America safe, while advancing U.S. interests and championing universal values abroad.
But, we also know that there is so much more to do—from common sense gun control to comprehensive immigration reform, from tackling poverty and stubborn unemployment to building an education system for the 21st century. The next generation deserves the support and opportunities that so many of us have had. They need the tools and the spirit to compete in a global economy. We owe to them a future where equality is real no matter who you are or who you love; a future where prosperity is possible for all, including those held back by poverty or kept down by bigotry.
These challenges are urgent and serious for all Americans, but they are particularly critical for the African American community, which has suffered disproportionately from the Great Recession. We all know unemployment is much higher among African Americans, and poverty is more pervasive. Too many of our kids still grow up without fathers and risk their lives just to attend failing schools. We’re still struggling to access educational opportunities and even to be able to exercise the right to vote.
You and I know this and, most importantly, President Obama knows this. And that is why he and his Administration are working hard every day to lift up our communities of color and expand opportunity. That’s why we’re widening access to quality early childhood and higher education, including through the launch of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence and the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. That is why we are supporting working families and minority businesses, investing in job training, and trying to increase the minimum wage. That is why the President is promoting affordable home ownership and revitalizing struggling communities. And that is why we will not rest until we end the scourge of senseless gun violence.
As we continue this struggle, let us remember that the rights we cherish at home belong not just to Americans but to all people. The security and prosperity we seek are sought the world over. And let us never underestimate the power of our example when we live up to our ideals. America today proudly shoulders the mantle of leadership in a profoundly complicated and interconnected world, where indifference to the suffering of others can undermine our security and well-being here at home. In this world, we have no better option than to work together – at the local, national and global levels.
So, may tonight remind us that our common struggle to perfect our union, to uplift the vulnerable, and to forge a more peaceful, prosperous world is not nearly over. By empowering and investing in all Americans, by strengthening our communities, by expanding equality at home, and by promoting justice, democracy and growth abroad, this country will fulfill its promise and continue to lead and inspire the world throughout the 21st century.
Thank you again for this extraordinary honor. And thank you all so much for everything you do.
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