Remarks by Senator Edward M. Kennedy

It is an honor to be part of this 1996 Profile in Courage Award Ceremony. This is the seventh year of the Award. As a young Senator in the 1950's, President Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for his book about elected officials in American history who demonstrated an unusually high degree of the quality he called political courage.

The Library Foundation instituted this annual award as a memorial to President Kennedy, and as a way of encouraging contemporary leaders to do what they were elected to do -- to do what they know is right -- in other words, to lead, to sail against the wind if necessary - not just drift with the prevailing political breeze or kowtow to established interest groups.

What I'm talking about are political leaders who act on principle, who are willing to risk the wrath of their constituents -- and sometimes their own re-election -- in order to do what they truly believe is right for their constituents and right for their country.

Our goal in these annual awards is to honor that quality in contemporary elected officials, at whatever level of government they serve -- federal, state, or local. By doing so, we hope to encourage the American people to value political courage more highly in their elected representatives.

This year's winner is Corkin Cherubini, and his story is extraordinary. He was born in Virginia, attended first, second, and third grades here in Worcester, went back to the South for college in Alabama, a Master's Degree at U.Va. and a Ph.D. at Auburn. For 22 years, beginning in 1970, he was a high school teacher in Calhoun County, Georgia, teaching English to juniors and seniors. He was devoting his life to helping thousands of children in the county learn and learn well. He made teaching children his work, and his life -- a remarkable achievement in itself.

Four years ago, a new chapter began -- or perhaps it all began in Worcester, I like to think. He decided to run for school superintendent in the county and won. Dr. Cherubini, the teacher, stepped out of the school classroom and into the office of school superintendent, and began to write a new chapter on political courage.

As the title of Mrs. Clinton's best-seller says, it takes a village to raise a child. But in Dr. Cherubini's experience, that truth was only partly true. He knew his village was raising some children -- but lowering others. Calhoun County had long expected black children to achieve less than whites, and the expectation had become a self-fulfilling prophecy through a vicious system of racial tracking.

Black children were arbitrarily put on a dead-end track in dead-end classes on the first day of kindergarten, and white children were put on a track to get real education. The tracking system was an education abomination, and Dr. Cherubini decided to blow the whistle on it, and write a new and better self-fulfilling prophecy, based on ability and achievement.

Using the power of his office, he insisted that his county should provide all school children -- black and white - with the same opportunity for a good education. He urged the county to join in changing the system and ending the waste in lives. But the entrenched power structure in the county said no, and an epic county battle began.

But Corkin Cherubini was well-armed too. As Andrew Jackson said, one man armed with courage makes a majority - and Dr. Cherubini was armed with courage. As he said, humbly but powerfully, "Now that I'm in a position to do something, I just feel it’s my moral obligation -- moral, legal, and ethical."

His commitment never wavered. He endured death threats, hate letters, and the prospect of obvious defeat in the next election. The future of the children was the heart of his cause. He insisted that no one be left out or left behind. And he prevailed. The vicious racial tracking system was ended.

America needs more men and women like Corkin Cherubini in public life at every level. His example can encourage some -- and shame others -- into doing what is right. His courage is the kind of political courage which President Kennedy admired. It's the kind of courage we need more than ever in America today, if we are to end the discontent of our democracy and enable our big sprawling vital system of representative government to work the way it should.

That's why elected officials like Corkin Cherubini are profiles in courage. We need more of them in politics -- many more of them - and I'm honored to be here with him as he receives this well-deserved award.

Remarks of Senator Edward M. Kennedy on presenting the 1996 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Dr. Corkin Cherubini, School Superintendent of Calhoun County, Georgia, May 28, 1996.