Dianne Feinstein

Martin Luther King Day Address - Jan. 20, 2003

Dianne Feinstein
January 20, 2003— San Francisco, California
18th Annual Labor and Community Breakfast
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Thank you, Walter (Johnson), for your kind words, and thank you all for coming here this morning. I am honored by the invitation, on this very significant day - on what would be the 74th birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King. The fact that we have come together, as part of a nationwide celebration of the life, achievement and enduring vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, demonstrates how far our country has come since his tragic and untimely death 35 years ago. With his soaring rhetoric and immortal words, Dr. King's ability to lead and inspire non-violent protests in the name of civil rights changed the face of America forever. Dr. King spoke out against what he called "the long night of racial injustice," against "the debilitating and grinding poverty that afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder," and against the horror of war. Triggered by Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on the bus and Dr. King's defiant march from Selma to Montgomery, America would undergo a complete transformation. Back then, segregation was legal and subordination the norm. Today, they are isolated aberrations, and rooted out by the power of the law. Today we celebrate not only Martin Luther King but the deep and varied contribution of African-American culture. Every February is devoted to Black History, and every major college and university offers degrees in African-American studies. At the time of Dr. King's death, more than half of all African Americans lived in substandard housing and minority income was half that of whites. Today, African-Americans serve at the highest levels of government and business. Over the past generation, African-American household income has increased by 31%, almost double the increase among white households. During this same time period, the number of African-Americans living below the poverty level has also dropped dramatically, from 40 to just under 25 percent. All of this would have been impossible without the eloquent determination of Dr. King. This is something we must ensure that our children never forget. Like many of you, I remember the struggle for civil rights very well. I remember back in 1961, when a builder of a new subdivision near Sutro Forest refused to show a home to a man familiar to everyone, the Honorable Willie Brown. I went to the protest at the subdivision site, with my daughter Katherine in a stroller. The picket line was slow, the incline was steep, and the stroller ran into the heels of the person in front of me. It was Terry Francois, at the time leader of the local NAACP and destined to be the first African-American appointed to the city's Board of Supervisors, in 1965. This chance meeting marked the beginning of a friendship that has meant a great deal to me. Terry would become something of a mentor to me in the area of civil rights, and was the one who appointed me to the Advisory Committee for Adult Detention, which had the authority to inspect and report on the condition of city and county jails. With respect to my own career, Terry was the one who sat me down and said: "Dianne, either you run for the Board of Supervisors or stop talking about it." So I ran, and I won. In fact, I came in first and was named President of the Board. Later, as Mayor, I was able to draw on a large talent pool and appoint a number of African Americans to numerous boards and commissions, including Willie Kennedy to the City's Board of Supervisors. And since I've been in the Senate, where I serve on the Judiciary Committee, I have been very fortunate to be able to recommend for nomination many African Americans for judicial positions, such as Judge White, Audrey Collins and Consuela Marshall. But despite the progress made, here and across the country - despite the victories won against discrimination, prejudice and racism, there are still obstacles keeping minorities from fulfilling the American dream. As a nation we have evolved, but not far enough. In the words of Dr. King, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy." Dr. King would clearly not shirk from the challenges and controversies we are facing today. And neither should we. It is time for us to reconsider the extent of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Along with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, I believe there can be no doubt that "concrete action must be taken if such bias is ever to be erased." It is time for us once more to investigate claims of voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, which I find absolutely unacceptable. Indeed, one of Dr. King's greatest legacies was the passing of the Voting Right Act in 1965, protecting every American from racial discrimination when exercising his or her right at the voting booth. It is time for us to rethink ways to provide affordable housing and increase home ownership, especially with the Department of Housing and Urban Development planning to cut the operating budgets of hundreds of public housing agencies across the country by 30%. It is time we find ways of making our neighborhoods safer, and of making our salary scales even more equitable. Overall, we must respond to this present state of affairs with a forceful call to action, from the federal government to the local communities. When a teenage student at Morehouse College, Dr. King wrote that "we must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." I would add that this should also be the goal of our national leaders. I for one believe that we need to articulate a new bipartisan national strategy on race in America. I believe it is time to do everything in our power to reach a meaningful consensus on issues of education, health care, and economic opportunity. I believe that to devise such a strategy will require dialogue, and must include leaders from the public and the private sectors. Such a strategy must also draw from the Latino, Asian and Native American communities, from leading women's group, as well as with African - Americans. And it should include the President of the United States. At the beginning of a new century and a new millennium, America is a much more open and tolerant society than it was at the time of Dr. King's assassination. And I believe that Dr. King would be the first to recognize these advances. But just because our country has come a long way, does not mean we still don't have a long way to go. I look forward to working with all of you, to protect advances made by America's minorities, and also in furthering those advances. An assassin's bullet may have ended Dr. King's life on that fateful day in Memphis, but his vision has refused to die. Together - and only together - we can work to ensure that Dr. King's dream will become a lasting reality.