Remarks At Black History Month Celebration
Secretary of State
Thank you. Well, I want to thank John so much for the work that he’s doing here and his lifetime of commitment to not only excellence, but a recognition that we are stronger when we do look like America, and his great leadership on behalf of the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity.
This is a special occasion for several reasons. First of all, we have the opportunity to celebrate Black History Month, a chance to remember and honor the contributions that African-Americans have made toward building our nation and making real the principles that America was founded upon, to think back, but also to take stock of where we are and where we hope to be in the future. Of course, to recognize and celebrate iconic figures like Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks or Medgar Evers or, of course, Dr. King, to think of the leaders of the abolitionist and civil rights movements whose vision, courage, and sacrifice set our country on a path toward liberty, equality, and opportunity for all citizens.
Now, these heroes of American history do not belong just to us; they are viewed as universal, they’ve inspired people to raise their own sights around our world, and especially those who have taken up the cause of freedom and equality in their own countries.
I have been privileged to know some of those leaders over the past, and now at the present time, I was privileged to hear Dr. King speak when I was a teenager. And it was an experience that certainly shaped my view of the world and ignited in me a sense of greater purpose and citizenship. And I’m just one of millions whose lives were changed either by some direct contact of actually shaking his hand as I stood in a long line after an event in Chicago, taken there by my youth minister, or people who have read about and followed the life of Dr. King and decided to try to replicate his words and his deeds.
So our journey toward equality is nowhere near complete. But thanks to so many who have come before, we have made progress. And today, with President Obama, that progress has taken another giant step forward. And the President has inspired countless millions of people, certainly starting here at home, but going so far beyond our own borders. But even having Barack Obama as our President doesn’t mean the journey is over, and that we still have much to do and much to learn together.
Now there are many people, though, whose names will not be in the history books, or if they are, it won’t be in blazing headlines the way that Dr. King or President Obama will certainly be, but they’ve been critical, and right here in the State Department, we know that. Since 1869, when Ebenezer Bassett became our first black diplomat, thousands of African Americans have served here at State, including Edward Dudley, our country’s first African American ambassador; Patricia Roberts Harris, our first African American woman ambassador; and of course, my distinguished predecessors as Secretary of State, General Colin Powell and Dr. Condoleezza Rice.
I want to share one story about one person whose actions helped shape the history of our nation and our world, because I’m just the warm-up act. I’m like – (laughter) – the warm-up band because people are still coming in. I want you to be all settled to hear the main attraction here. (Laughter.)
But let me just talk to you for a minute about Ralph Bunche. Every day, people use the library at the State Department named in his honor. And you may know that it’s named for Dr. Bunche, but you may not really be aware of the many contributions that he made to world peace. Dr. Bunche worked intensely for two years in the late 1940s to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was the first of many who have given so much to try to resolve that conflict. He was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for that intense effort of his. He was one of the architects of the United Nations and he helped to lead the UN for decades. He worked toward peace and progress here in his own country. As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, he helped organize the march from Selma to Montgomery. And when President Truman offered to make him an assistant secretary of state, he declined, choosing instead to focus on ending the housing discrimination that had sustained segregation in our nation’s cities for generations, consigning African Americans to homes in unsafe, underserved neighborhoods.
Dr. Bunche knew that our nation’s quest for freedom, justice, and opportunity must take place simultaneously here at home and around the world. Because our ability to stand for democracy in other countries depends, in part, on how well we fulfill the dream of democracy right here. So as we call for inclusive governments that reflect the will of their people, we must ensure that our own government at the federal, state, and local level reflects the views and backgrounds of the American people. And as we urge foreign leaders to invest in their people’s future, we must invest in our own people by increasing access to healthcare and education, creating opportunities for our citizens to work with dignity to provide for their families and pursue their dreams.
And as we work to strengthen existing friendships, we have to demonstrate, by word and deed, our commitment to the full diversity of America, because that is one of our strongest strengths. The diversity of our workforce represents our values and traditions as well as any policy or proclamation ever could. And it enriches the pool of ideas that help shape our agenda here at home and overseas.
So today, our Office of Civil Rights, led by our Chief Diversity Officer John Robinson, is advancing our efforts to recruit talented people from all backgrounds, and we ask for your help. Please encourage people to come to work at the State Department and USAID. Tell them about the opportunities that we have. Our diplomats-in-residence programs at historically black colleges and universities are doing just that – encouraging talented young people to pursue careers in the Foreign Service. And because recruiting talent is only half of the battle, we’re also providing mentoring opportunities to make sure that the young people who join the State Department have the support that they deserve.
Now, Black History Month is a chance for us to highlight this, but every month must be diversity month here at the State Department. And we can’t do it just from the leadership level; we need to make sure it suffices our entire workforce. This work has to continue day in and day out all year long, because we are still building on the accomplishments of the past, still striving to fulfill the vision of Dr. King and Dr. Bunche. And we believe that the State Department has a critical role to play in breaking down the barriers to equality and achievement.
I look out here and I see people that I am privileged to work with every day. I see someone like Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson who seems to be in Africa every other minute trying to help defuse crises and resolve them. And I am very grateful for the quality and dedication, the experience and expertise of the people I get to work with every day.
Now, it is my pleasure – I know, John, you may have a few things to add because you’ve known her since she was at Brown – but Debra Lee is a friend of mine. That’s the first thing I want to say. She is someone who has been so successful and accomplished, but has also been so graceful as she has achieved the heights of corporate leadership in the United States. She is the chief operating officer of Black Entertainment Television, but she’s much more than that. She’s a mom of two great kids. She was a wonderful, faithful daughter of a superb mother herself who helped to influence her journey, a family that has supported her, and a wealth of friends who she has been supportive of.
It’s a great privilege for us to have her at the State Department today. I know you will enjoy her as much as those of us who are her friends enjoy her on every occasion. So please join me, and John, you want to say a few additional words – oh, you want to say a few additional – I’m so sorry. We’ve got more words to say about her. (Laughter.) But I just couldn’t resist. Actually, none of this was told to me, so – but I just couldn’t resist because you’re in for a real treat. So, thank you all and Debra, thank you for being here. (Applause.)
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