Jesse Jackson Jr.
Words cannot express how proud I am to be speaking at the 10th Annual Lincoln Forum symposium in Gettysburg. These are hallowed grounds, and I am deeply moved and humbled to be here. While most of the focus this week has been on the past, the 142nd anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, today I am drawn to the conclusion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which looked to the future. Lincoln said, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we are highly resolved that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the face of the Earth.”
My friends, whenever I come to Gettysburg, I am completely struck and overwhelmed by the awesomeness ─ the historicity of this occasion. I am moved by the sacrifice of the men who paid the ultimate sacrifice to make our nation what it is today. And so while I’ve prepared remarks (and I’ve spent nearly two weeks preparing what I thought would be most appropriate for this occasion), there is nothing quite like coming to Gettysburg and walking amongst the remains of those who paid that sacrifice, looking at one’s text, and then moving away from one’s text because words etched on paper can never fully accomplish and never fully pay complete tribute to what those who ultimately sacrificed their lives did for us at this location. And so for my colleagues on the rostrum, I am going to deviate from my remarks and speak from what I believe is appropriate for this occasion: my heart.
When I look back upon the history of our world and the history of our nation, the characteristics that most drive human history are defined by “un-freedom” and not by freedom. The idea and concept of freedom is a relatively new concept in the organization of humanity. And yet, when we look through the conditions of slavery and other parts of the world and we think about the peculiar institution within our own context, we cannot help but think and understand and appreciate that today we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world because our nation and the concept of freedom is an evolving one that is heading somewhere in human history. It’s heading somewhere. The idea that in our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson would etch the immortal words that “all men are created equal,” and our states and our federal government through our nation’s history have done what they could to bridge the gap between those who have been fundamentally left behind: either trapped in the idea of a strong federal system or trapped in the idea and allegiance to our states. This is the world that Abraham Lincoln understood. It is the world that he sought to challenge, and a world he sought to change. That in the final analysis we should be measured not by our states, but measured by one, human yardstick. One human standard. That each of us are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights: that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And that no structure, no state, no organization, no federal organization can deny who we are as human beings and our rights inevitably ordained and constituted to us not by governments of men, but by God himself.
And so I stand here today completely humbled by this occasion, as the 91st African American to ever serve in the Congress of the United States. Number ninety-one out of 11,700 Americans who had the great privilege of serving in the Congress of the United States because 142 years ago, men who would never live to see this day paid the ultimate sacrifice that we would be a nation that stands for equal opportunity, equal hopes, equal aspirations. That we would be a nation that would constantly redefine what it meant to be free; not just for ourselves, but for future generations. Yesterday the Congress of the United States did something extraordinary. It added to the Capitol of the United States a full and life-size statue of Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks, who in 1955 on December 1 made it possible for our nation to make good on its commitment that all men (and yes, women) would be created and be treated equally in our society. And now we stand here and we sit dreaming of an America where 45 million Americans who have no health insurance should have it one day. We sit and stand here dreaming of an America where those who are unemployed will have the opportunity to provide jobs and families and decent security for their families. We stand here today dreaming of an America: a
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