Crowley's Remarks at 12th Annual Black History Month Event
Washington, D.C. —Below are Congressman Crowley’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
Welcome, and thank you for joining me here tonight to celebrate Black History Month and to honor some extraordinary leaders in the African-American community.
Tonight, we are very fortunate to be joined by a son of New York, a product of our city’s schools and community and a history maker in his own right, our nation’s first African-American Attorney General, the Honorable Eric Holder.
As our nation’s top lawyer and the head of the Department of Justice, Mr. Holder is tasked with the essential burden of enforcing our nation’s laws and ensuring their just and impartial application to all citizens. From the Bill of Rights, through the Reconstruction Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the recently enacted hate crimes legislation, this has often meant that Mr. Holder, or one of his predecessors, has been the ultimate guarantor of the civil rights that define us as Americans.
However, I believe Mr. Holder would readily admit that while his role and those laws are essential to our country’s preservation, they are not sufficient to make our country great. Our greatness, instead, comes from the strength of our communities and from the values of civility and virtue that leaders such as tonight’s honorees have dedicated their lives to.
State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, State Committeewoman Barbara Brown and our guest of honor Mr. Holder have each made a life long commitment to improving their communities and to promoting compassion and understanding in their neighbors. Mr. Aubry in his tireless efforts to change the way we treat drug addiction. Mrs. Brown in her dedication to the youth of her community. And, Mr. Holder in his distinguished career in public service.
I believe that these acts of selflessness are, in many ways, the natural extension of the civil rights movement whose shoulders they stand on and whose example we must all strive toward to keep our society prosperous.
While many of their achievements have been accomplished through their capacities as public servants, you don’t need to be an elected official or work for the government to contribute to your community. As some of the past honorees of this event have demonstrated, the virtue of their deeds relies not on the title following their name, but solely in the fact that they strengthened their communities.
Take for example my good friend and past honoree Congressman John Lewis. This past week President Obama awarded Mr. Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded by our government, for a lifetime of service to his country.
And while I can assure you that his long and distinguished career in Congress has been nothing short of significant, some of his greatest contributions to civility came while he was just a young man. When at the age of 19 he organized one of the first lunch counter sit-ins. Or when he participated in the Freedom Rides two years later. Or when at the ripe age of 23 he inspired thousands with his speech at the 1963 March on Washington. John’s life shows the only thing needed to promote civility in our communities is a willingness to work hard and to put others before self.
John’s example of action through community, although difficult to live up to, is something that I’ve strived to emulate and have used to guide much of my work in the Congress.
Recently, I created the Crimestopper program that has delivered funds for anti-crime and quality of life initiatives throughout the Bronx and Queens. I've also supported afterschool programs, early childhood education, and drug prevention initiatives to ensure that our young people are growing up on the right path. And, I've championed efforts to encourage mentoring for at-risk children so they can have a positive influence in their lives.
Although these programs can provide the structure we need to affect change, the change itself must come from you, from leaders such as Mr. Aubry, Mrs. Brown and Mr. Holder and from vibrant families and communities.
To paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan, although government can provide an outlet for civility and virtue, it cannot create civility and virtue in us. Instead, the growth of these values can only come from our roles as citizens, family members and communities.
As you know, the past few years have not been easy for our country. All across our nation communities such as this have felt the pinch of a stagnant job market and a faltering economy. But, while the worst is behind us and optimism for our future prospects grows everyday, we are not out of the woods just yet.
This week, down in Washington, we have been debating how the Congress will fund the federal government for the remainder of this year. A combination of fewer revenues and an injection of “deficit reduction fever” have induced a situation in which severe cuts will be made to our federal budget.
While the rules are slightly different and the stakes much higher, the choices we end up making will not be so different than the choices families must make everyday. We will have to do more with less and make do without certain programs. While the final budget very much remains in flux, I am certain that tough choices will have to be made.
However, I can promise you that I will fight to make sure those choices are not made at the expense of hard-working Americans who continue to struggle with the waning effects of the recession. That programs for education, unemployment insurance, job training, public safety, environmental protection, and most importantly, health care, remain intact and in place to support those working hardest to make ends meet. Because, cuts to these programs represent false promises of responsibility. And, continuing to fund these programs is what we need now and more importantly what our children need for a prosperous tomorrow.
Further, we must recognize that programs such as these are essential to promoting civility in our communities, but also in our national discourse. It is with tremendous concern that I have observed the degradation of these values in our national dialogue. Rhetoric of governance and politics that were once principled, but civil has become unbending and vitriolic. What were once differences of opinion or philosophy have become perceived threats to the very existence of political opponents.
For me, the recent tragedy in Tucson put much of this in perspective. Through the pain and loss I saw several communities unite in a more perfect discourse and rise above the anger and raw emotion of the shootings. Both Congresswoman Gifford’s community in Tucson and her community on Capitol Hill came together to offer their thoughts, prayers and time to those directly affected by the shootings. And, for a brief moment those communities forced the tone of our national discourse to be more positive and less apocalyptic.
Although fleeting, this moment showed me that communities that show love for their neighbors and compassion towards their opponents still have the ability to shape our nation’s future for the better.
As we celebrate the rich history of African-Americans and their indelible impact on the course of our nation’s history, I think it is appropriate to take a moment to reflect on what the future holds for both the African-American community and for the country as a whole.
As the 2010 Census showed, our nation continues to evolve into an increasingly diverse melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities and in no place is this phenomenon more apparent than in New York’s 7th Congressional District.
With this growth comes some inevitable friction, but also a tremendous opportunity. Opportunity to add to the rich legacy of the American experience and opportunity to gain new perspective on how we will face the challenges of the future.
This opportunity will not be realized, however, if we as a community do not work to improve the way we treat our neighbors, the way we view those we disagree with, and the way we interact with communities that are not our own.
For the success of our future is dependent on our ability as Americans to bridge cultural, political, personal, religious and racial gaps and debate the grave challenges of our future in the highest tradition of civility and love that Mr. Aubry, Mrs. Brown, Mr. Holder and Mr. Lewis have demonstrated throughout their lives.
So, I stand here today to challenge you to look toward these fine Americans and see how you can change your communities, and your country, to be a more civil place to live. So that neighbors become brothers. So that communities become incubators of civility. So that differences do not beget hatred. And, most importantly, so that anger never leads to violence.
Congressman Crowley is the seven-term representative from the 7th Congressional District of New York, which includes sections of Queens and the Bronx. He is a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee and serves as a Chief Deputy Whip in the House of Representatives. Crowley has hosted an annual Black History Month event every year since 2000.