Rep. John Lewis – Washtenaw Country Democratic Party Annual Dinner
October 3, 2009
Stream the audio using this player:
TRANSCRIPT: I’d like to thank my brother John Dingell for those kind words of introduction. The chairman of the state party, the county party, all of the honorable elected officials, all of you wonderful, smart, beautiful and handsome Democrats. I must just tell you that it is a great pleasure to be here tonight to spend some time with my friend John Dingell and his lovely wife Debbie and it’s always a pleasure to visit Democrats in this great state.
You know that I’ve prepared a speech and I don’t think I’m going to follow it but maybe I’ll follow it a little bit.
But I’ve come to respect the people of Michigan a great deal because you tend to make such good decisions, such wise choices. In the last election you decided to make a change and send Mark Schauer along with his wife, Christine, to represent the 7th District in Washington. [applause]
I want to thank you, we needed that little help. Not just that we need help here in Michigan. We needed some help in Georgia and all across America. John Dingell is right, Mark, you help add and help build a lasting majority. You’re a good friend, you’re a good brother, and I love seeing you on the floor with your wonderful smile and your sense of hope and optimism. Because the Democratic Party, OUR party, is the Party of Hope and Optimism. It is the party that says we must never, ever give up, that we must never, ever give in, that we must keep the faith, and keep our eyes on the prize. Thank you for sending Mark to Washington.
Now, you know John Dingell better than I do. He’s a wonderful man and that’s one more reason that I love the people of Michigan because you know quality when you see it. You do. Now, this state has a wonderful, long history of sending some unbelievable, outstanding and gifted people to Washington. For many years, more than any other member of the House of Representatives, John Dingell’s been serving. He’s not just “The Dean” of the Michigan delegation but he’s “The Dean” of the House. He is our leader. He is our champion. He’s a great legislator and it has been an honor for me to see him in action and to get to know him and his wife, Debbie.
John has already said, he made it plain, that we’re in for a difficult fight on the issue of health care before us. Every session of the Congress this man, your Congressperson, has been introducing health legislation, following in the footsteps of his father. He believes, as I believe, that health care is a right and it’s not a privilege but a right. And that the quantity and the quality of a person’s health care should not be decided by the size of their personal wallet, that person’s bank account or the zip code that that person lives in. We’re going to pass health care and when we pass it, as Mark stated, John Dingell’s name will be all over that bill. It will be a living tribute to him.
No you saw from the video that I didn’t grow up in a big city like Detroit, Lansing. I didn’t grow up in a big city like Chicago or New York or Atlanta. I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama 50 miles from Montgomery outside of a little place called Troy. You heard in the video that when I was a young child, only about 4 years old, my father had saved 300 dollars and with the 300 dollars he bought 110 acres of land. My family still owns that land today. And on this farm there was a lot of cotton, corn, peanuts, hogs, cows and chickens. I noticed tonight we had some chicken for dinner. Now I don’t whether any of you here know anything about raising chickens or not. I know in some parts of Michigan, people raise a few chickens. But I know something about raising chickens. I know as Democrats, some of you can raise a lot of money, raise a lot of fuss, organized and not organized, registered and not registered, but you don’t know anything about raising chickens. Let me tell you about when I was a young boy growing up in rural Alabama in the 40s and the 50s. I’d take the fresh eggs, mark ’em with a pencil, place them under the setting hen, and wait for three whole weeks for the little chicks to hatch.
Some of you may be saying, “Now, John Lewis, why do you mark those fresh eggs with a pencil before you place them under the setting hen?” Well, from time to time, another hen would get on that same nest and there would be some more eggs and they could tell the fresh eggs from the eggs that were already under the setting hen, you follow me? Well, if you don’t follow me, it’s okay! But when these little chicks would hatch, I would fool the setting hens. I would cheat on these setting hens. I would take these little chicks and give them to another hen, I’d put them in a box with a lantern, raise ’em on their own, get some more fresh eggs, mark ’em with a pencil, place them under the setting hen, and get the setting hen to stay on the nest for another three weeks. Just kept on fooling these setting hens and cheating on these setting hens.
When I look back on it, it was not the right thing to do!
It was not the moral thing to do, it was not the most loving thing to do, it was not the most non-violent thing to do, it was not the Democratic thing to do, we just kept on cheating on these setting hens.
I was never quite able to save eighteen dollars and ninety-eight cents to order the most inexpensive incubator or hatcher from the Sears & Roebuck store. We used to get the – you know? – you old enough to remember the Sears & Roebuck catalog? Maybe you don’t but it was this big book. Thick. Heavy. Some people called it the “Ordering Book”. Other people called it the “Wish Book” (“I wish I had this, I wish I had that…”)
Well, I just kept on cheating on the setting hens. But as I was a young child, I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to preach the Gospel. So, from time to time, with the help of my brothers and sisters and my first cousins, I would get all of our chickens together from the chicken yard like you’re gathered here in this room. My brothers and sisters and first cousins would line the outside around the chicken yard. Along with the chickens, my brothers and sisters and first cousins would become part of the congregation of the audience and I would start preaching.
But when I looked back some of the chickens would bow their heads, some of the chickens would shake their heads, but they never quite said “amen”!
But I’m convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to in the 40s and the 50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my Republican colleagues listen to us in the Congress today or they listened to me better, I would think, better than Joe Wilson.
I think some of those chickens were probably a little more productive. At least they produced eggs! Well that’s enough of that story…
I was brung up right there outside of Troy, Alabama, I would visit that little town of Troy, visit Montgomery, visit Tuskegee, visit Birmingham. I saw those signs that said “White Men”, “Colored Men”, “White Women”, “Colored Women”, “White Waiting”, “Colored Waiting”. As a young child, I tasted the devils of segregation and racial discrimination. I didn’t like it. I remember so well that in 1955 at the age of 15 in the tenth grade, I heard about Rosa Parks in Montgomery, I heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio. And the words of Dr. King, the actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks inspired me to find a way to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. As I said, I asked my mother, I asked father, my grandparents, my great grandparents, “Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?” And they would say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble!”
But I was inspired to get in the way, to get in trouble. And it was good trouble and it was necessary trouble. And it’s time for the Democratic Party all across America to get in trouble again and help Barack Obama pass health care! We must do it. We MUST do it!
Our party, OUR party, we control the House, we control the Senate, we have the White House. The American people elected us to do something.
Now, in the 60s, we didn’t have a website. We didn’t have a iPod. We didn’t have a cellular telephone. We didn’t have a fax machine. But we used what we had to bring about a non-violent revolution, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. And it’s time for us again as a people to mobilize, to organize, and turn people out to vote like we did in ’08 and we must do it in 2010. You must send John Dingell back. You must send Mark Schauer back. We must maintain our majority.
You know, a lot of this is not about just defeating health care. Part of it is pure politics. They want to give the Democrats a defeat. They want to give President Barack Obama a defeat. And that must not happen on our watch.
This is not a struggle that only lasts for one election or one term of a president. Our struggle is the struggle of a lifetime if that is what it takes to build a more perfect Union.
When I spoke at the March on Washington on August 28th, 1963 at the age of 23, I was the youngest speaker. I spoke number six. Dr. King spoke number ten. I remember saying in that speech, “You tell us to wait. You tell us to be patient. We cannot wait, we cannot be patient. We want our freedom and we want it NOW!” That’s what we must say about health care: NOW is the time. We must pass health care now.
If it were up to John Dingell and John Dingell alone, we would have had single-payer. Right, John? But we’ve got to come together with our friends, all of our friends, and our friends in the Senate, and send this president the strongest possible health care reform bill.
We can do it. Not just for ourselves. But for our children and their children, a generation yet a-born. If we fail to pass it, in my estimation, the American people and history will not be kind to us.
Now I got arrested a few times. Went jail. Left beaten, bloody at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery in May of 1961 in the Freedom Rides. And a concussion on that bridge in Selma in 1965 for the right to vote. I didn’t give up then and with John and Mark and the Democratic Party, I am not prepared to give up now. [applause] So don’t give up! Don’t give up. Don’t lose faith. Be prepared to push and pull.
Now, it’s been a long evening and it’s been a wonderful dinner, wonderful meal, wonderful fellowship. And I just want to go back to that shotgun house. John, I really ant to go back there. Now I know something about hard work. When I was working in the field from time to time, I used to say to my mother, “The sun is hot and the work is hard.” And she would say, “Well, hard work never killed anybody.” And I said, “Well, it’s about to kill me!”
But along with that work on the farm, taking care of those chickens, getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and now as an elected official, it’s been good for me. That work, it teaches something about responsibility, something about not giving up, about hanging in there, like keep pushing and pulling.
Growing up on that farm, 50 miles from Montgomery, I did have an aunt by the name of Sineva. And my Aunt Sineva lived in what we call a shotgun house. She didn’t have a green, manicured lawn. She had a simple, plain dirt yard. Sometimes, during the day, she would walk out into the woods and take branches from a dogwood tree and tie these branches together and make a broom and she called that broom “the brush broom”. And she would sweep this dirty yard clean, sometimes two and three times a week but especially on a Friday or Saturday because she wanted that dirty yard to look good during the weekend.
But those of you who have lived in urban cities all your life and especially in the northern parts of our country, you never seen a shotgun house. Let me tell you what a shotgun house looks like: in a non-violent sense, it’s an old house, one way in, one way out, maybe a tin roof where you can bounce a basketball through the front door and it would go straight out the back door. Or in the military sense, old house, one way in, one way out, maybe a tin roof, where you can fire a shotgun through the front door and the bullets would go straight through the back door. My Aunt Sineva lived in a shotgun house.
And on one Saturday afternoon a group of my bothers and sisters and a few of my first cousins (about 12 or 15 of us young children) out playing in my aunt Sineva’s dirt yard and an unbelievable storm came up. The wind started blowing. The thunder started rolling. The lightning started flashing and the rain started beating on the tin roof of this old shotgun house. My Aunt was terrified. She started crying. She got all of us little children together and told us to hold hands. The wind continued to blow. The thunder continued to roll and the lightning continued to flash and the rain continued to beat on the tin roof of this old shotgun house. And we cried and we cried and when one corner of this hold house appeared to be lifting from its foundation, my aunt had us go up to that corner and try and hold the house down with our little bodies. When another corner appeared to be lifting, had us go up to that side. We were little children walking with the wind, but we never left the house.
So I say to you as the Democratic Party: the wind may blow, the thunder may roll, the lightning may flash and the rain may beat on our old house. Call it the house of Michigan. Call it the house of New York. Call it the house of California. Call it the house of Georgia. Call it the house of Maryland. Call it the house of Washington, D.C. We all live in the same house. Maybe our foremothers and forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we all in the same boat now. It doesn’t matter that they’re black, white, Latino, Asian American or Native American. It doesn’t matter that we are straight or gay. We’re one people! We’re one family. We’re one house. We all live in the same house. So as Democrats, let’s stick together, let’s struggle together, let’s stand up together, let’s work together, let’s organize and mobilize together and bring about great victory for our people and create a more perfect Union.
So I say to you tonight: walk with the wind and let the spirit of the Democratic Party, a Party of Hope, a party that will stand up for the people, and not for special interests. Hang in there, keep the faith, let’s build and not tear down. Let’s be reconciled and not divided. Let’s love and not hate.
Thank you very much.