Reta Jo Lewis
Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs
Georgia State Capitol
Atlanta, GA
January 12, 2012

Date: 01/12/2012 Description: Special Representative Reta Jo Lewis' delivers remarks at the  Martin Luther King, Jr. ceremony at the Georgia Capital, Atlanta, GA, on January 12, 2012.  - State Dept Image

Thank you everybody. Thank you for that warm introduction. I am honored and humbled to be here today.

Governor and Mrs. Deal, Mayor Reed, members of the King family, Mrs. Farris, and honored guests—it is a sincere privilege to be with all of you today.

As a native daughter of the “Peach State” there is no greater honor than returning to the halls of Georgia’s Capitol, to commemorate and celebrate the very giants that made my story—and the story of many others in America possible.

All of the distinguished guests in this very room—perhaps too many to even thank—played a sacrificial role in birthing a movement that reimagined the very moral fiber of our country. Many you have heard from, but many more will remain anonymous.

They may not hold titles; they may not pine for accolades; and they may not get shout-outs in the beginning of speeches—but in the endless pursuit of justice, they all dreamed together, they all struggled together, and they all endured together.

The vision of Dr. King was never in the name of just one man, or one mission—it was a test of strength and courage for a collective lot of people, all vying to reclaim the fabric of their country.

Their insatiable thirst for justice could never be quenched by just one river, or one stream of ideology. It took a common cause by countless men and women—of all races, creeds and colors—to burn the barricades of bigotry and bridge impossible divides. And as is the case with all embattled pursuits of what is just—it was not easy. It was a pursuit riddled with false-starts and bitter disappointments; it was a dream continually deferred, even after landmark legislation and legal precedent was on our side.

But one need not look any further than to the diversity of faces that now make up the playgrounds of our schools—the pews of our churches—and the boardrooms of booming enterprises—to appreciate the legacy our “ancestors of change” bequeathed to this nation.

Although we are here to celebrate that very dream, and that very symphony of justice—whose overtures unshackled us from generations of discrimination—perhaps the most profound lesson imparted by Dr. King: is that our work is yet to be finished.

Because while “the long arc of history” has bent toward what is right—racism persists; inequality has yet to be overcome; and the clenched fists of oppression continue to beat down on the hearts and minds of people in far too many corners of the world. So, Dr. King’s message of love, tolerance and equality, is not only universal, but also timeless…just as apt today, as it was nearly five decades ago. And as Governor Deal pointed out in his remarks last year, “[i]t is a message that deserves to be repeated through the ages.”

All over the world today our youth are taking up the batons of civic engagement. Though forever children in our eyes, they are indeed young men and young women with an eye towards building a world free of social ailment. They are springing up against dictatorships and occupying the excesses of corporate inequality; they are insisting upon a stronger respect for our environment and challenging the status quo of bitter partisanship.

But, in order for the youth of today to truly be the leaders of tomorrow; in order for them to become effective advocates for inclusion and vanguards of social change—they must heed the teachings of Dr. King, and we must continue to espouse them. All of us must continue to make those around us aware that the path to social change demands an ethic of public service, a commitment to reconciliation and a spirit of love and mutuality.

Only 26 years old when he began preaching the gospel of tolerance, Dr. King’s principles of understanding—even now—are vital to encouraging young minds to build a compassionate world that stands up against inequality, illiteracy, hunger, and poverty, for many generations to come.

By calling on us to assume the best in one another, and express our common commitments to one another, the equal rights movement was just as much about freeing us from the grip of discrimination, as it was about reimagining the world as one people—who could look to one another, learn from one another, and build solutions with one another.

It’s why King’s movement has inspired freedom struggles of youth around the world. And it’s why his towering stone of hope, enshrined on the National Mall in Washington, DC, displays the words: “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class and our nation.”

Honoring this ethic demands of us a heightened sense of compassion. It demands that we do not frivolously dismiss the environmental fallout of a people in Haiti, or the shaken economic spirit of a people in Tokyo—as being distant or other-worldly.

Because the issues we confront in this modern century are not white problems or black or brown problems. They are not Independent, Republican or Democratic problems. They are not American or Chinese or Indian problems. They are human problems, and they demand human solutions.

That’s why I am proud to work for Secretary Clinton who trumpets inclusion. Proud to be part of a team that trumpets onward with Dr. King’s legacy of inclusion at the United States Department of State. By acknowledging that 21st century statecraft does not begin or end at the border’s reach—we are engaging in deep and spirited dialogues with local leaders and civic activists in localities throughout the world. Proud that the message of inclusion allows me to work with leaders like Governor Deal, Mayor Reed, your legislators and Council and city members, clergy, and non-governmental organization leaders.

This level—of what we call “subnational”—engagement allows us at the Department of State to join hands and confront our most human of challenges, with the very souls and leaders that brave them on the ground every day. And this level of diplomacy is equipping us with an outlook to trade better, educate our children better, promote better jobs and innovate better.

By advancing principals of openness, freedom, transparency and fairness, we are creating deep cultural exchanges among nations. It’s exactly with that sort of eye towards global vigilance that empowered Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi to draw upon the guidance of one another…sparking social revolutions—half way around the world—but under the same umbrella of justice.

So from Boston to Beijing, and from Atlanta to Athens, we’re able to march toward just global ends—not as warring factions or disparate regional powers, but as a common people with common purpose. And unless we continue to advance that ethic of compassion and unity, the pathway forward in confronting 21st century challenges will be drawn out by the disharmonizing choir of cynics.

We know this because all throughout the course of human history there have been those that decry calls for change in the way we do business. And throughout the course of human justice there have been those who would rather preserve the status quo than usher in a new era of change. But the legacy we honor today is one that demands we do not settle, nor do we go-it alone.

It demands that we do not throw in the towel when the going gets tough, nor do we rest on the laurels of incremental achievement. And we certainly do not turn a blind eye when a wrong is exacted outside our homes. Injustice Anywhere, is a threat to justice Everywhere.

So unless we rise together, and continue to fight the consequences of economic, social and political unrest together—we will be resigned to a world that kowtows to the way things are, instead of fighting for the way things ought to be.

I still recall that tense day in the seventh grade, where I meekly stepped onto the school yard for the first time in my newly integrated junior high.

Even though I had the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, many of my own classmates still smacked with looks of hostility and snickers of disdain.

It took time for the bullying in the classroom to stop, and it took even longer for the moral guidance of our nation to kick in—but we all did our part to keep fighting, and indeed, it got better.

I am proud to say that my family has joined me here today. My mother and father told each of us to work hard as students and to excel because it would afford us opportunities that eventually paved the way for other daughters and sons of Georgia to know that they too have equal opportunities to pursue what they put their minds to. And as a movement, the foot soldiers of justice kept marching, and kept pushing, and kept building—turning small victories and heroic steps into a broader sense of political and economic equity.

It was not easy. It never is. I have been able to witness firsthand that the world continues to look to the United States to lead, but to do so Americans know that we must remain resolved in our fight against modern challenges, as the equal rights movement was in theirs.

We must not budge till we weather the economic storm that plagues the small businesses of Georgia. We must not waver till all our children may access premium public educations. We must not relent till we resolve the blistering bite of poverty.

And this is not just because as a country filled with extraordinary people we feel obligated to perform extraordinary things. It is because as we heed Dr. King’s teachings, and carefully listen to what is being commemorated today, we recognize an obligation to one another— We recognize the only way to stand up to injustice, and the only way to combat the challenges of our time, is to serve one another.

We are able to be where we are today, because we have been afforded the chance to stand on top of the shoulders of giants, gaze into the horizons hope and charter a new frontier. So to truly honor their work, we must honor a commitment to a greater good, a greater union, and a greater world for each other.

That’s why Dr. Martin Luther King’s day of celebration next week—a day I had the unique privilege of helping codify into law with Congresswoman Katie Hall and Congressman John Conyers in the U.S. House of Representatives—is not just a day off—it’s not just a day to remember the most vivid of Dreams—It is instead a clarion call to participate in the public service that lends a hand to the hungry, lends some hope to the hopeless, and lends some right to those wronged.

By wedding diversity and tolerance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made the American dream more accessible. By coupling determination with principle, he made justice more attainable. So next week I encourage all of you to mark his day of remembrance with service that begs the question: “what can be better?”—and “what ought we do, to make it so?”

That is the conviction we must carry now in our hearts. That is the conviction with which we must mark this New Year. That is the conviction me must carry into the 27th celebration.

Thank you Dr. King. Thank you Georgia. And thank you to anyone who has ever stood up in the name of a more perfect union.