William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Washington, DC
January 31, 2012

Date: 01/31/2012 Description: Deputy Secretary Burns delivers remarks at the Department's Martin Luther King Day Celebration.  Seated form left to right are John Robinson, Director of the Office of Civil Rights, the Honorable Harold Ford, Jr., and Stacy Williams, President of the Thursday Luncheon Group. - State Dept Image

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much, John, for your kind introduction and for all of the great work the Office of Civil Rights does. I also want to thank Stacy and the Thursday Luncheon Group for co-organizing this very important event.

It is truly an honor for me to celebrate with you today the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. As all of you know, his actions changed the character of our country, and his legacy lives on in millions around the world who are standing up today to injustice and to claim their universal rights.

The man whose life we celebrate today, a reverend who never held any government position, was one of the greatest ambassadors this country has ever had. A few days ago, I was in Accra, where, fifty-five years ago, a young Dr. King witnessed the first raising of the Ghanaian flag—the birth of a new nation. This moment inspired Dr. King to later comment, “Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed. You have to work for it… Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter. It's never easy… But finally, Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice.” After witnessing Ghanaians claim their independence, Dr. King redoubled his efforts to ensure that African-Americans, too, could be the authors of their own future.

The very name of Martin Luther King has become a touchstone for people around the world seeking rights and dignity, social justice and decency, grounded in a sense of common humanity. There is a Martin Luther King Church in Hungary, a Martin Luther King community center in Johannesburg, a Martin Luther King garden in India, a Martin Luther King forest in the Galilee, and of course, our new King Memorial right here on the Mall.

As far as Dr. King’s name has traveled, his ideas have gone much further. Last year, the lessons of the March on Washington became the spirit of Tahrir Square. In Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Sana’a, Hama, and across the Arab world, we have seen what Dr. King described as “the fierce urgency of now” – and the remarkable power of peaceful protest to transform entire societies.

Much of what we do here at our State Department, as diplomats and development workers, as servants to the American public, rests firmly on the premise that America’s wellbeing and the world’s are ultimately inseparable. Dr. King’s fight to fully realize America’s founding values made us stronger. And the rights and freedoms he helped to win at home became those we promote around the world. The Memorial calls each of us to keep alive Dr. King’s hopeful dream for our world by taking action. One of his quotes inscribed in the Memorial says, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”

And so we champion the principles for which Dr. King fought so hard, including the strengthening of communities and the right of every human being to live free – free of want, free of fear, and free of persecution. This same, ever-expanding spirit of inclusion is what led Secretary Clinton to famously proclaim that women’s rights are human rights and to give a groundbreaking speech this fall in Geneva on the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

And as an organization, we also strive to practice what we preach. I have seen the Department make much-needed, long-overdue progress in improving diversity since I joined the Foreign Service in 1982, and I have seen how that diversity truly enhances our foreign policy. Today, more than half of our Civil Service is female and over thirty-seven percent are minorities. Last year, twenty-eight percent of our newly hired Foreign Service generalists and specialists were minorities. We still have a long way to go, but we are committed to ensuring that the people who represent America in the world should be truly representative of the American people. Nobody can doubt that the top jobs in American foreign policy are open to men and women of all races. We are committed to practice equal opportunity within the walls of our embassies and our consulates, and we are the stronger for it.

With that, let me turn to today’s guest. I’m truly honored to welcome and thank Harold Ford, Junior, who has come from New York to be the keynote speaker in our Martin Luther King celebration here at the State Department.

You will hear how Congressman Ford’s own inspirational American journey led him to earn five terms in the United States Congress, proudly continuing his family’s tradition of public service to the Memphis community. Congressman Ford served on the House Financial Services, Budget and Education Committees, and was Chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council. Since then, he has worked for Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, as a contributor and analyst to television news channels, and as a professor at three universities in three states.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in giving a warm welcome to the Honorable Harold Ford, Junior.