To Caroline Kennedy, Senator Edward Kennedy, the Kennedy family, trustees of the Foundation, thank you for this truly special honor. I am humbled to be included with the other honorees, Senator Bill Ratliff and U. S. Army Specialist Joseph M. Darby.
I join Congressman John Lewis, Governor Roy Barnes and State Representative Dan Ponder as the fourth Georgian to receive the Profile in Courage Award. They set a high bar for public service. Representative Ponder is here today, as is Mayor Sam Massell.
I would like to recognize my mother and my aunts, who along with my father and grandparents are more responsible than anyone for me standing before you today.
The friendship and steadfast support of my children, my Atlanta colleagues and friends have carried me through the good days and the challenging days.
I am an accidental politician, an unintentional Mayor.
I grew up in Philadelphia. I came South to teach at Talladega College in Alabama, and found my way to Atlanta, Georgia some thirty years ago.
I spent the bulk of my professional career in public service, working behind the scenes for two very special individuals, Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson. They taught me how to be a leader, to follow my conscience, to act with foresight and courage. They were, and they are, my inspiration.
Five years ago an election for Mayor was near. I was 55 years old and had no interest in running for political office. Andy and Maynard, however, saw things differently. They told me it was my duty to run, it was my duty to serve. For all of you who know Andy and knew Maynard, it is impossible to say no to them.
When I was elected, I still did not quite know what was in store for me.
After my first budget briefing I was reminded of the quote by John Kennedy upon his election as President: “When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”
In actuality, I found things were worse than we’d been saying they were.
The city faced a 20% budget gap, a dilapidated and underfunded water and sewer system and hundreds of dispirited employees. But with hard work and persistence, we balanced the budget and funded the $3 billion water infrastructure.
I reached out to all of Atlanta
- Republicans and Democrats,
- business and labor,
- city and suburbs,
- African-Americans, whites and latinos;
we did it working together.
I would not be here today if I had not been inspired by others.
Growing up in Philadelphia, my inspiration came from my church, and especially the preacher’s sermons, His message was clear – we are called to do God’s work on earth. Reverend Jesse Anderson sparked my interest in social and economic justice for people of color, the poor and the oppressed around the world. He inspired me to care about others all the time, Not just when it is convenient or easy to do.
As a teenager, I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy.
I was in high school when he was elected. He changed our whole generation with his call for sacrifice, boldness, optimism and equality; a belief that we can reach the moon both literally and figuratively. He inspired me to work harder and to reach higher.
In his civil rights address to the country, the President said, “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience . . . This Nation was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
While Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson taught me how to serve, a decade or so earlier President Kennedy inspired me to choose a public service career.
The civil rights movement was in full gear as I became an adult. The fearless and moral leadership of the movement, caused me to examine my life and how I could contribute.
My mother and aunts insisted the family march together for the March on Washington. To this day I remember the excitement of walking through the streets of the nation’s capital with them. We joined thousands of other marchers. I remember the spirit of unity I felt. John Lewis and Martin King stand out in my memory.
Lewis was so young yet powerful… inspiring me as a young person to act rather than to watch and wait. And Martin King offered a message of hope, reconciliation, and a vision for America.
His life exemplifies believing in something so much you are willing to sacrifice everything. He committed everything he had to the movement for human rights, to end oppression, racism, hatred and hopelessness.
Martin King’s life and legacy inspire me to act with conviction. His dream for a just America rings true today.
The Yoruba teach, “If we stand tall, it is because we stand on the backs of those who came before us.” Remarkable men and women Martin, Andy, Maynard, John Kennedy, Susan B. Anthony, Mary McCloud Bethune, Madame C. J. Walker and Harriet Tubman were visionary, determined and courageous in the face of losing odds. I stand here because others sacrificed that I might have a better life.
My commitment to honesty and integrity as mayor is shaped by their lives and contributions.
And it is by God’s grace that I have been given the opportunity to serve as mayor of Atlanta and I am determined to do my very best in that service.
Caroline, I thank you for your leadership in telling our stories of public service. And I pray my endeavors live up to this great honor.