Acceptance Speech

To the family of President John F. Kennedy, members of the Selection Committee, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am so very honored and humbled to accept the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award today. My very first political memory is hearing the news of his tragic death. At the time, I did not exactly understand all the reactions on our 4th grade playground, nor the implications of the event.

The first political book I read as a teenager was "Profiles in Courage". It was a model to me of how political life should be, always striving to do what was right rather than what was politically expedient.

I would like to thank my friends who are here today. You will never know what your presence here and your support throughout my life has meant. I look forward to telling each of you that personally.

As with all people who stand tall at a time in their lives, they often stand on the shoulders of those that went before them. I grew up in some of the darkest days of segregation, but I am blessed with a mother, who is here today, and a father, who is here in spirit, that always taught me that every human being has a right to live with respect and dignity, regardless of their color or station in life.

I stand on the shoulders of my brother and sister, who always encouraged my political interests. I especially stand on the shoulders of Mary Lou, my wife of 25 years, who never questions any stand I take except to ask, "Is it the right thing to do?" How blessed I am to have her by my side.

And finally, I stand on the shoulders of my two daughters. Catherine, who will graduate from Agnes Scott College next weekend, attends one of the most culturally diverse campuses in the country. Elizabeth, who is finishing her second year at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, walks under the long shadows of George Washington and Robert E. Lee.

Individually, they move easily among those that are different. They do not recognize color as a condition for friendship. They value those friends with different ethnic and religious backgrounds. They are not afraid to open themselves up to those that are different. They give us hope for the future. They are my own heroes.

I never campaigned about hate crimes. It is not a big issue in the district I represented. It was and still is a terribly divisive subject that people on both sides of the aisle were afraid of politically. I knew for some reason, however, that this was an issue on which I would speak if I had the chance. I didn't write my speech until the morning of the debate, but parts of it had been in my head for 30 years.

As the bill was called and debated, it slowly slid into the type of partisan debate that I had come to dislike so much. Blacks spoke with anger about the early civil rights days. Whites spoke with anger about creating a special class of people. It was about us versus them. As the rhetoric became more heated, no one was listening to anyone. Votes were decided before most of the members had gone onto the House floor.

People were speaking from their heart, but in most instances they were speaking only to those exactly like them. In my own heart, I knew that for some inexplicable reason, it was my time. If I were going to be the kind of politician I had always wanted to be, then I had to speak. I knew that there would be no one else.

I spoke as the most unlikely of Southerners about how racism and intolerance had affected my own life. With 9 Great-Great-Great Grandfathers that had fought for the Confederacy, I had no apologies to make for my Southern heritage. But as a human being, I knew what was right and what was wrong.

I spoke of the black lady who helped raise me. She showed me how to love unconditionally regardless of the color of one's skin. She died many years ago, but I have this vision of Mary Ward and my father sitting side by side in heaven with two big grins on their faces.

What an incredible gift I have been given! Through the power of one speech, meant only to be heard by 180 people that I knew, my life has been transformed. My eyes have been opened to the plight of so many others around the world.

I received over 25,000 letters and emails in the first year after that speech. Each of these letters had a story they wanted to tell.

I began to realize that this is a never-ending war being fought in a hundred different battles. I had letters from groups that were upset about not being included in my speech. I received letters from those who have views of whites, or southerners, or Republicans that had somehow been shattered.

I heard of people being ostracized by family, isolated by community, and forsaken by churches. People who are more alone than you and I can ever comprehend.

Through the power of one speech, I have been able to speak to our country in wonderfully diverse situations. I am able to see first hand how far we have come, and how much farther we have to go.

I heal through my own journey. I celebrate all the diversity that I can find. What an amazing opportunity I have been given to work for and seek justice not only for blacks, gays, Jews, and women, but for any group that finds itself a victim of intolerance, even White Anglo Saxon Protestants.

I hope that everyone understands, as I do, that my words are not my own. They are the words of a wonderful black woman that impacted my life. I heal by honoring her life and her goodness as a human being.

I am a Christian. The Bible says that we are all created in God's image. Is it so hard for me to believe that includes all of us? Those of another faith have similar teachings.

I am an American. Our Declaration of Independence states clearly "All Men are Created Equal". Not just white people, or men, or the wealthy, or heterosexuals, but all men are created equal. As Americans, is it so hard for us to accept that?

I am a human being. All people have generally lived by some variation of the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Is it so hard for us to live by this rule, regardless of our color, or religion or background?

I received a similar message from hundreds of people around the world. Loosely translated the message states that if you change the life of one person it is the same as changing the whole world.

One individual won't change the whole world. However, we can begin by opening our eyes to our neighbors, talking with them instead of at them, and believing the best rather than the worst about them. We need to learn about each other, our cultures and beliefs.

Those present today may not know the person seated next to them. We may never see them again in our lifetime. However, we have something in common with them as a human being. We can learn from each other. Hate should have no place in our lives. We fight that battle one person at a time.

I am just an average person, who one day had the opportunity to say what I believed. This world is full of people like me, people who have to make choices about right and wrong, and people who have to make unpopular decisions just because it is the right thing to do.

For all of the unsung heroes, who never get credit for their hard decisions, but find the courage to say proudly that every human being has the right to live with dignity and respect, I accept this award on your behalf.

Remarks delivered by former Georgia State Representative Dan Ponder, Jr. on accepting the 2003 Profile in Courage Award, May 12, 2003.