Remarks by Senator Edward M. Kennedy
I'm honored to be here today with the winners of this year's Profile In Courage Award. Their devotion to our country's fundamental values has been expressed in courageous deeds and words that are an example to all of us.
This is the 14th year of the award. It was inspired by President Kennedy's book, and our goal is to encourage contemporary political leaders to be more willing to take on difficult issues and demonstrate the kind of political courage that my brother so admired.
We also hope that the award will continue to encourage young men and women to enter public service and demonstrate their own dedication to high principle.
In his book, President Kennedy told the stories of courageous political leaders who made difficult decisions and did the right thing under heavy pressure, and often at great risk to their own careers, and my brother would be especially proud of the winners this year. They rose to the challenge of prejudice and bigotry despite risks. They led by example and called on their constituents and their colleagues to reach for the best in themselves.
Over half a century ago, the modern civil rights movement began the historic and courageous journey, that took it into the armed forces, into the schools and classrooms of America - into voting booths to exercise the most fundamental freedom of our democracy - into local stores asking for the simple decency of eating at the lunch counter.
As they did so, the citizens in communities across the country had to look deeper into themselves. To their credit, most Americans responded with outrage as searing images of injustice poured out of television sets in living rooms across the nation. Sadly, there were those who could not let go of the past. Governor Barnes and Governor Beasley dared to challenge them so that their states could take a better and fairer path to the future.
The Confederate Battle Flag flying above the Capitol domes in both Georgia and South Carolina was a symbol of that past, and African Americans saw it as a continuing condemnation of them to the back of the bus.
Both Governors summoned the courage to meet the issue head on and tried to encourage a compromise. Governor Barnes skillfully obtained a major change in the Georgia flag. In South Carolina, Governor Beasley proposed that the Confederate Flag no longer fly atop the Capitol, but at a Confederate memorial on the Capitol grounds.
Both Governors endured a firestorm of outrage that divided their party and divided the citizens of their states. Protests erupted, and they were threatened with violence. Opponents made the flag a central issue in the next election. Opponents of the change turned out in large numbers on Election Day, as had been predicted, and both Governors were defeated for re-election.
Governor Beasley told the people of South Carolina, "Any banner we fly over the Capitol, where decisions about our children's future are made, should be one that everyone can claim as their own."
Governor Roy Barnes told his fellow political leaders in Georgia, "When the dust settles and controversy fades, will history record you as just another politician or as a person of conscience? The truth of the matter is, we only have one flag. It's the flag of the United States of America. I believe I'll stick with it."
Our third profile in courage this year is Dan Ponder, who electrified the Georgia legislature with a courageous speech against hate and prejudice. At the time, the Georgia legislature was considering hate crimes legislation, and as a conservative Republican his colleagues expected him to oppose it. But he has a story to tell about his own life, and he summoned the courage to tell it.
He spoke of a young black woman who had helped to raise him and take care of him since he was born. She loved him as if he was her own son, and he thought of her as his second mother. One day when he was 12 or 13, he turned his head away when she tried to kiss him as he went out to play. She stopped him and looked into his eyes with a look burned into his memory and said, "You didn't kiss me because I am black."
He denied it but told his colleagues from the well of the Georgia State House that "I have lived with the shame and memory of my betrayal of Mary Ward's love for me. I pledged to myself then and I repledged to myself the day I buried her that never, ever again would I look in the mirror and know that I had kept silent, and let hate or prejudice or indifference negatively impact a person's life, even if I didn't know them."
His speech made all the difference. The hate crimes bill had been about to be defeated, but it passed by an overwhelming vote. It's one of the all-time great political speeches, and I hope everyone who hears about it will read it. I intend to put it on my website this afternoon.
All three of our award winners today, each in their own way, have stood up to ancient hatreds and tried to put an end to the divisions between their fellow citizens. They are all truly Profiles in Courage.
It is my great honor now to introduce Caroline Kennedy, who continues to impress us all with her leadership here at the Library. I know her parents would be especially proud of the skilled work and devotion she brings to the Profile In Courage Award each year. They would also be so very proud of her latest accomplishment - her magnificent new book, "A Patriot's Handbook."
It is a remarkable anthology of the great historic speeches, poems, songs and stories that have been such an inspiring part of our country. As she says, they're the "building blocks of our democracy." They're also a timely reminder of the values Americans cherish and respect, especially after all we've been through as a nation in these last two years. Caroline's love of our country and love of its history comes shining through these pages. She's a joy to all of us who know and love her. Ladies and gentlemen, Caroline Kennedy.
Remarks delivered by Senator Edward M. Kennedy
at the presentation of the 2003 Profile in Courage Award to Governor Roy Barnes, Governor David Beasley and Representative Dan Ponder, May 12, 2003.