Remarks by Senator Edward M. Kennedy

It’s a privilege to be here today and to join in honoring this year’s recipient of the Profile in Courage Award.

As you know, this annual award honors President Kennedy, and it takes its title from his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Profiles in Courage,” which he published in 1957 while he was still a Senator.

Today is also President Kennedy’s birthday. He would be 81 years old today, and I know that he would be especially pleased by this year’s winner.

President Kennedy’s book told the stories of famous people in American history who showed extraordinary political courage by doing what they thought was right, in spite of powerful resistance and opposition. This year’s winner clearly demonstrated that quality of political courage, and he did so at great physical risk to himself as well.

Nick Murnion is a genuine hero. He’s the elected county prosecutor of Garfield County in rural eastern Montana. The county has only 1500 people in a 5000 square mile area the size of Connecticut. It is mostly a ranching and farming community, and the largest town is Jordan, with a population of 500.

Nick Murnion’s community in Montana came under siege beginning in 1993 from a group called the Freemen, a belligerent anti-government militia that took root in the area. They refused to abide by local laws or pay taxes. They harassed and threatened public officials, and threatened the lives of anyone who challenged them. They wanted to set up a republic of their own, governed by Biblical law, not U.S. law or Montana law. They said Blacks and Jews should be excluded. They thought the black helicopters were coming, and that the U.S. was in danger of being taken over by the United Nations.

In 1994, they posted a $1 million bounty for Nick Murnion and other officials who were enforcing the law by foreclosing on their property. They even threatened to hang Nick Murnion from a nearby bridge. They set up an armed camp on a local ranch and defied the law.

But Nick Murnion stood his ground and stood up to them. He prosecuted them for violating the law, and he won convictions.

He asked for federal help, but it was slow in coming. For a year, he was virtually alone in defending the rule of law in Garfield County.

In November 1995, during that traumatic time, he testified before Congress about the growing threat of such militia groups. His courage impressed all of us in Congress then, and helped alert the nation to the threat.

Finally, in 1996, the FBI came in, and after an 81 day siege, the militia leaders surrendered peacefully. Five of the Freemen were convicted by a federal jury in Montana last March. Fourteen more went on trial earlier this week in Montana.

It’s an extraordinary story, and Nick Murnion is at the heart of it, standing firm for fundamental principles. He’s a true profile in courage. The extremists met their master. As Andrew Jackson said, “one man with courage makes a majority.” Armed with the rule of law, Nick Murnion prevailed.

Today, as the nation struggles to deal with extremist groups, and with hate crimes, church bombings, schoolyard shootings, and other distressing acts of violence in our society, Nick Murnion’s story brings us back to our roots as a democracy under the rule of law.

Our laws are the wise restraints that make us free. No one is above the law. Vigilante justice in our society is unacceptable. No Americans anytime, anyplace, anywhere are free to take the law into their own hands.

Nick Murnion acted in the best tradition of our country and the Constitution, and I congratulate him on winning this year’s Profile in Courage Award.

Remarks made by Senator Edward M. Kennedy on presenting the 1998 Profile in Courage Award to Nick Murnion, May 29, 1998.