Members of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Committee, staff, and distinguished guests, it is a privilege to be with you. Thank you for this moment. I want to thank my family and friends for joining me here in Boston for this special day, especially to my partner Rebecca and to my amazing children, Paul II, Leanna, and Cameron. Thanks for your support.
I am truly humbled by this honor. Quite frankly I remain in disbelief. I haven’t quite recovered from the shock of a young man talking to me on my cell phone telling me that he is President Kennedy’s grandson. I will never forget the intense emotion of that moment as I realized the magnitude of what Jack was offering me.
To consider that a Kennedy, a member of the family that my own family loved and cherished, admired and respected, called me forward to recognize me from among true heroes and courageous people – well it just goes beyond my ability to comprehend.
I was nine when President Kennedy was inaugurated and he laid down a challenge for generations to follow when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
How incredible that me -- the 10th of 12 kids born to dirt-poor farmers -- was chosen for this recognition. It just doesn’t happen. We had a pot-bellied stove in the kitchen. As a young child my Daddy and my family farmed our 55 acres with two mules, ‘Ole Pet and ‘Ole Dan. My chores were to feed the mules and the hogs. We had a single milk cow, ‘Ole Butt and lots of chickens. We didn’t have indoor plumbing or even running water. But, we did have lively conversations, particularly about politics. Daddy was a Southern Democrat and would complain that it wouldn’t do any good to go vote because Mama would be in the booth next to him killing his vote. We were poor, proud, and close-knit.
I was a member of my high school’s first fully-integrated graduating class. I saw firsthand our country’s institutionalized racism. I have witnessed long-term damage caused by segregation. How fortunate I am to experience the power and richness that comes with diversity.
I was a father at 23 and opened up the book that filled my early manhood with joy and pride and endless activities. Without my kids I’m nothing. They drive me to be a better man. They challenge me to constantly examine what I think and how I live. They have taught me the humility of being forgiven for countless shortcomings and the importance of letting them be who they really are.
In 1999, I met Mario living in a single-wide trailer in a cotton field with a host of others and working in the onion fields and baling pine straw. Though we didn’t speak each other’s language at the time, we were instant friends and he remains my closest friend to this day. His youngest, Citlali, calls me Grandpa and his older daughter, Celeste, is here this morning. Thirteen years ago Mario moved to the United States with his wife, a 4-year old daughter, and 7-year old son. On their journey, they were held, locked in a basement this side of the border with only the clothes on their backs. As a parent, I cannot imagine the terror of traveling through the desert separated from your young children. As with my parents before me, I do understand the passionate desire to make a better life for my children, to make sure that they have a better education and opportunities than I did and that they are happy and free to be the best that life can offer.
While I am honored to receive this Award, I know in my heart that it didn’t take “courage” to speak the truth: just a profound sense of injustice, the willingness to speak up, and the knowledge that there are millions of others who feel the same. This is all I have really done; speak the truth about the unfairness of our current immigration system.
I was asked to run for Mayor in 2009. We completed three years of missing financial audits, installed new computer systems, corrected the city map, and bought beautiful street signs and many other long-overdue improvements. The townspeople revived the ‘Ole Time Farm Festival. Typical Mayor stuff for two great years. That was to quickly change.
When Red States began passing their own so-called immigration laws, I could see prejudice raising its ugly head. Georgia passed a law (HB87) that created criminals out of ordinary people. Grandparents who invited their own children’s wife or husband into their homes could be subjected to a year in jail. A son driving his undocumented mother to the grocery store could become a felon. Close-knit mixed-status families suddenly found themselves contrary to law.
Yes, I spoke out against Georgia’s new law. It did not feel courageous for me to tell the truth. Gandhi said, “Even if you are a minority of one; the truth is the truth.” After years of condemning the ACLU, I must publically apologize to them. The law (HB87), that I called heinous because of its attack on our families, wouldn’t have been overturned had it not been for this dedicated civil liberties organization along with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Shockingly those attacks continue. My state will not allow undocumented students to attend select universities. Even if an honor graduate has attended kindergarten through 12th grade in Georgia and the student is undocumented, she must pay out-of-state tuition. Now the talk is to not issue birth certificates to babies born to undocumented parents. How can what I just said not jolt your conscience?
There are two ideas I’d like to leave with you. First, how profoundly grateful I am that you bestowed this national honor, the Noble Prize of public service, on me. Secondly, that we as a nation can no longer leave hard-working, family-oriented God-fearing people to walk in the shadows or live in the terror of losing a loved one to deportation. We must allow those who put food on every American dinner table the opportunity of upward movement. We must find a way, and find it now.
Dr. King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Thank you all.