Some people have asked if I’m nervous about speaking at Howard. They say “You know, some of the students and faculty may be Democrats…”
My response is that my trip will be a success if the Hilltop will simply print that a Republican came to Howard but he came in peace.
My wife Kelley asked me last week do you ever have doubts about trying to advance a message for an entire country?
The truth is, sometimes. When I do have doubts, I think of a line from T.S. Eliot, “how should I presume to spit out all the butt ends of my days and ways, and how should I presume.”
And when I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions, I think again of Eliot’s words: “when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, how should I presume?
And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college. Here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act.
Some have said that I’m either brave or crazy to be here today. I’ve never been one to watch the world go by without participating. I wake up each day hoping to make a difference.
I take to heart the words of Toni Morrison of Howard University, who wrote: “If there is a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
I can recite books that have been written, or I can plunge into the arena and stumble and maybe fall but at least I will have tried.
What I am about is a philosophy that leaves YOU — to fill in the blanks.
I come to Howard today, not to preach, or prescribe some special formula for you but to say I want a government that leaves you alone, that encourages you to write the book that becomes your unique future.
You are more important than any political party, more important than any partisan pleadings.
The most important thing you will do is yet to be seen. For me, I found my important thing to do when I learned to do surgery on the eye, when I learned to restore a person’s vision.
I found what was important when I met and married my wife.
Although I am an eye surgeon, first and foremost, I find myself as part of the debate over how to heal our sick economy and get people back to work.
I truly believe that we can have an economy that creates millions of jobs again but we will have to rethink our arguments and try to rise above empty partisan rhetoric.
My hope is that you will hear me out, that you will see me for who I am, not the caricature sometimes presented by political opponents.
If you hear me out, I believe you’ll discover that what motivates me more than any other issue is the defense of everyone’s rights.
Of strong importance to me is the defense of minority rights, not just racial minorities, but ideological and religious minorities.
If our government does not protect the rights of minorities, then democratic majorities could simply legislate away our freedoms.
The bill of rights and the civil war amendments protect us against the possibility of an oppressive federal or state government.
The fact that we are a Constitutional Republic means that certain inalienable rights are protected even from democratic majorities.
No Republican questions or disputes civil rights. I have never waivered in my support for civil rights or the civil rights act.
The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview.
What gets lost is that the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights.
Because Republicans believe that the federal government is limited in its function-some have concluded that Republicans are somehow inherently insensitive to minority rights.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Republicans do, indeed, still believe many rights remain with the people and states respectively.
When some people hear that, they tune us out and say: he’s just using code words for the state’s right to discriminate, for the state’s right to segregate and abuse.
But that’s simply not true.
Many Republicans do believe that decentralization of power is the best policy, that government is more efficient, more just, and more personal when it is smaller and more local.
But Republicans also realize that there are occasions of such egregious injustice that require federal involvement, and that is precisely what the 14th amendment and the Civil Rights Act were intended to do-protect citizens from state and local tyranny.
The fourteenth amendment says, “No state shall . . .” The fourteenth amendment did change the constitution to give a role for the federal government in protecting citizenship and voting regardless of race.
I did not live through segregation nor did I experience it first-hand. I did grow up in the South in public schools comprised of white, black, and Latino students largely all getting along with each other.
So, perhaps some will say that I can never understand. But I don’t think you had to be there to have been affected by our nation’s history of racial strife.
The tragedy of segregation and Jim Crow in the South is compounded when you realize that integration began in New England in the 1840’s and 1850’s.
In 1841, Frederick Douglas was pulled from the white car on the Eastern Railroad, clutching his seat so tightly that he was thrown from the train with its remnants still tightly in his hands.
But, within a few years public transportation was integrated in the northeast.
It is a stain on our history that integration didn’t occur until more than 100 years later in the South. That in the 1960’s we were still fighting to integrate public transportation and schools is and was an embarrassment.
The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Fredrick Douglas until the modern civil rights era, is in fact the history of the Republican Party.
How did the party that elected the first black US Senator, the party that elected the first 20 African American Congressmen become a party that now loses 95% of the black vote?
How did the Republican Party, the party of the great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, for a century, most black Americans voted Republican. How did we lose that vote?
To understand how Republicans lost the African American vote, we must first understand how we won the African American vote.
In Kentucky, the history of black voting rights is inseparable from the Republican Party. Virtually all African Americans became Republicans.
Democrats in Louisville were led by Courier-Journal editor Henry Watterson and were implacably opposed to blacks voting.
Watterson wrote that his opposition to blacks voting was “founded upon a conviction that their habits of life and general condition disqualify them from the judicious exercise of suffrage.”
In George Wright’s “Life Behind the Veil,” he writes of Republican General John Palmer standing before tens of thousands of slaves on July 4th, 1865, when slavery still existed in Kentucky, and declaring:
“my countrymen, you are free, and while I command, the military forces of the United States will defend your right to freedom.” The crowd erupted in cheers.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s Democrat-controlled legislature voted against the 13th, the 14th, and the 15th amendments.
William Warley was a black Republican in Louisville. He was born toward the end of the nineteenth century.
He was a founder of Louisville’s NAACP but he is most famous for fighting and overturning the notorious Louisville segregated housing ordinance.
Warley bought a house in the white section in defiance of a city segregation law. The case, Buchanan v. Warley, was finally decided in 1917 and the Supreme Court held unanimously that Kentucky law could not forbid the sale of a house based on race.
The Republican Party’s history is rich and chock full of emancipation and black history.
Republicans still prize the sense of justice that MLK spoke of when he said that “an unjust law is any law the majority enforces on a minority but does not make binding upon itself.”
Republicans have never stopped believing that minorities, whether they derive from the color of their skin or shade of their ideology should warrant equal protection.
Everyone knows of the sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville but few people remember the sit-it in the Alexandria public library in 1938.
Samuel Tucker, a lawyer and graduate of Howard University, recruited five young African American men to go to the public library and select a book and sit and read until they were forcibly removed.
Tucker’s sit-in set the stage for students who organized the sit-in at Woolworth’s in Greensboro that brought down Jim Crow in many areas, years before the civil rights act of 1964.
I think our retelling of the civil rights era does not give enough credit to the heroism of civil disobedience.
You may say, oh that’s all well and good but that was a long time ago what have you done for me lately?
I think what happened during the Great Depression was that African Americans understood that Republicans championed citizenship and voting rights but they became impatient for economic emancipation.
African Americans languished below white Americans in every measure of economic success and the Depression was especially harsh for those at the lowest rung of poverty.
The Democrats promised equalizing outcomes through unlimited federal assistance while Republicans offered something that seemed less tangible-the promise of equalizing opportunity through free markets.
Now, Republicans face a daunting task. Several generations of black voters have never voted Republican and are not very open to even considering the option.
Democrats still promise unlimited federal assistance and Republicans promise free markets, low taxes, and less regulations that we believe will create more jobs.
The Democrat promise is tangible and puts food on the table, but too often doesn’t lead to jobs or meaningful success.
The Republican promise is for policies that create economic growth. Republicans believe lower taxes, less regulation, balanced budgets, a solvent Social Security and Medicare will stimulate economic growth.
Republicans point to the Reagan years when the economy grew at nearly 7% and millions upon millions of jobs were created.
Today, after four years of the current policies, one in six Americans live in poverty, more than at any other time in the past several decades.
In fact, the poor have grown poorer in the past four years. Black unemployment is at 14%, nearly twice the national average. This is unacceptable.
Using taxes to punish the rich, in reality, punishes everyone because we are all interconnected. High taxes and excessive regulation and massive debt are not working.
The economy has been growing at less than 1% and actually contracted in the fourth quarter.
I would argue that the objective evidence shows that big government is not a friend to African Americans.
Big government relies on the Federal Reserve, our central bank, to print money out of thin air. Printing money out of thin air leads to higher prices.
When the price of gas rises to $4 per gallon, it is a direct result of our nation’s debt. When food prices rise, it is a direct result of the $50,000 we borrow each second. Inflation hurts everyone, particularly the poor.
If you are struggling to get ahead, if you have school loans and personal debt, you should choose a political party that wants to leave more money in the private sector so you will get a job when the time comes.
Some Republicans, let’s call them the moss-covered variety, mistake war for defense. They forget that Reagan argued for Peace through strength, not War through strength.
The old guard argues for arms for Ghaddafi and then the following year for boots on the ground to defeat Ghaddafi.
I want you to know that all Republicans do not clamor for war, that many Republicans believe in a strong national defense that serves to preserve the Peace.
In Louisville, in the predominantly African American west end of town, it was recently announced that 18 schools are failing. The graduation rate is 40%.
The head of Kentucky’s education called it academic genocide. Johns Hopkins researchers call these schools dropout factories.
I defy anyone to watch Waiting for Superman and honestly argue against school choice.
A minister friend of mine in the West End calls school choice the civil rights issue of the day. He’s absolutely right.
By the sixth grade, Ronald Holasie was failing most of his classes, but through school choice he was able to attend a Catholic school in the DC area.
There he learned that he had a natural gift for composing music, but before that, his reading level was so low that he had struggled to write lyrics. Ronald then went on to matriculate at Barry University.
There are countless examples of the benefits of school choice – where kids who couldn’t even read have turned their lives completely around.
Maybe it’s about time we all reassess blind allegiance to ideas that are failing our children.
Every child in every neighborhood, of every color, class and background, deserves a school that will help them succeed.
Those of you assembled today are American success stories. You will make it and do great things.
In every neighborhood, white, black or brown, there are kids who are not succeeding because they messed up.
They had kids before they were married, or before they were old enough to support them, or they got hooked on drugs, or they simply left school.
Republicans are often miscast as uncaring or condemning of kids who make bad choices. I, for one, plan to change that.
I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions such as non-violent possession of drugs are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences.
I am working to make sure that first time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals.
We should not take away anyone’s future over one mistake.
Let me tell you the tale of two young men. Both of them made mistakes. Both of them were said to have used illegal drugs.
One of them was white and from a privileged background. He had important friends, and an important father and an important grandfather. You know, the kind of family who university’s name dorms after.
The family had more money than they could count. Drugs or no drugs, his family could buy justice if he needed it.
The other man also used illegal drugs, but he was of mixed race and from a single parent household, with little money. He didn’t have important friends or a wealthy father.
Now, you might think I’m about to tell you a story about racism in America, where the rich white kid gets off and the black kid goes to jail.
It could well be, and often is, but that is not this story. In this story, both young men were extraordinarily lucky. Both young men were not caught. They weren’t imprisoned.
Instead, they both went on to become Presidents of the United States.
Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky. The law could have put both of them away for their entire young adulthood. Neither one would have been employable, much less president.
Some argue with evidence that our drug laws are biased-that they are the new Jim Crow.
But to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point. They are unfair to EVERYONE, largely because of the one size fits all federal mandatory sentences.
Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy handed and arbitrary. They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them.
We should stand and loudly proclaim enough is enough. We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence.
That’s why I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences. We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community.
The history of African-American repression in this country rose from government-sanctioned racism.
Jim Crow laws were a product of bigoted state and local governments.
Big and oppressive government has long been the enemy of freedom, something black Americans know all too well.
We must always embrace individual liberty and enforce the constitutional rights of all Americans-rich and poor, immigrant and native, black and white.
Such freedom is essential in achieving any longstanding health and prosperity.
As Toni Morrison said, write your own story. Challenge mainstream thought.
I hope that some of you will be open to the Republican message that favors choice in education, a less aggressive foreign policy, more compassion regarding non-violent crime and encourages opportunity in employment.
And when the time is right, I hope that African Americans will again look to the party of emancipation, civil liberty, and individual freedom.