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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, As Prepared

03/04/2012
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As prepared for delivery.

There are far too many people here today who deserve thanks and recognition. I can’t possibly get to everyone, so let me just say what an honor it is to be here with so many incredible people.

I do want to say thank you to Congressman John Lewis. Thank you for being here, thank you for that wonderful introduction and – most importantly – thank you for your extraordinary work and inspiration through the years. I also want to thank the Faith & Politics Institute and the delegation from their annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. And of course, let me thank Pastor Scott and the wonderful people of Brown Chapel for welcoming me and all of us into your church. We are grateful for what you do day-in and day-out to keep the history of this place alive.

Before he became president, Barack Obama spoke here at Brown Chapel to remember the march from Selma to Montgomery. He spoke of his generation – and my generation as well as both President Obama and I recently turned 50 years old – as the Joshua generation.

We are the inheritors of leadership from the Moses generation – those who came before us and led us along the path to freedom. We are the generation that must now continue their work, bearing the responsibility to bring the people into the Promised Land.

Early on in the Book of Joshua, God comes to Joshua after Moses’ death. In what was surely a moment of great anxiety and uncertainty, God says to him, “Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you…”

God reminds Joshua that “as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” And he tells him, “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the LORD thy God is with thee...”

I have been given many blessings in my life, and had many occasions large and small to say thank you to the Lord. Today I am grateful to God for allowing me to be here at such a holy and historic place. And I am also grateful to Him for writing the beginning of my remarks. If I have to speak after John Lewis, it’s important that I get all the help I can.

But really, the words God spoke to Joshua are an illustration of what people of my generation feel, particularly on occasions like this. The words reflect the great pride and inspiration we feel thinking about leaders who sacrificed so much for us. They understand the great responsibility of carrying the torch, and speak to the doubts that anyone would have about living up to the examples that have been set by those who went before us. And they assure us of something that is important above all things: that we are not alone in this struggle.

I believe the passage about “every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon” has special meaning as well.

I was just three years old, living in New Orleans, when people gathered here in Selma to stand up for our rights. As they were marching across the bridge, I was just learning to walk.

Coming back here to retrace their steps reminds me that “every place that my foot treads upon” is a place that people like John Lewis and Martin Luther King and Dorothy Height have made possible for me and my generation.

I was only a few months old in 1962 when James Meredith tried to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. The reaction to his attempt to go to college was, as you know, a riot on the campus. Two people died, hundreds were wounded, and President Kennedy mobilized 31,000 National Guardsmen to calm the campus.

My parents in Louisiana watched that happen on television, and heard about it in the news and talked about it with their friends. And yet – looking at their little girl – my parents never had any doubt that someday I would go to college. They knew that the first steps on that path had just been taken for me.

It was one of the first indications in my life of the many changes in store.

I was one and a half years old when Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was too young to remember it – but I almost feel like I was there because my mother still talks about it like it was yesterday. She remembers the whole neighborhood watching it over and over, going to each others' homes. I remember her sitting me and my older brother down and watching the replays of the speech on TV – every year on August 28. It was a ritual we grew up with.

I was two years old when the federal Civil Rights Act was passed. I remember, not too many years after that, walking into elementary school for the first time, and I thought it was cool to see police officers lining the way into my classroom. I thought they were there to welcome us to our first day of school. I didn’t realize at the time that they were there because of the threat of violence at the sight of black children like me going to school with white children.

I was six years old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I have never seen my mother and father as shocked as they were that day. Not long after Dr. King’s death, my school selected me to recite the "I Have a Dream Speech" in his memory. I was too young at the time to grasp the importance of that moment. But today as an adult – and after decades of changes – I recognize what it means.

It means that from the early age of six, I have been able – and expected – to dream. Since I was just a child, I have been told to expect nothing less than the vision that Dr. King spoke about.

That was a profound change. Thinking about it now, I realize that even in that dark time, the seeds of victory had been planted.

It is one of the many changes that I and my generation owe to the generation that came before…the people who endured ridicule and abuse for equal access to a lunch counter, so that one day my generation would have equal access to a university education and a good job. “Every place that I tread upon” had been changed for the better.

Now, one of the first dreams I had was to work for the Post Office. My father was a postal delivery man in New Orleans when I was a little girl. Many of you know that it was one of the few good jobs a black man could get in the South in those days. My father fought in World War II – and when he came home he took that job and he supported our family.

He used to know the people’s names on his route. He would ring the front bell when the Social Security checks came in so he could make sure you got it in your hands. It was one of the first examples I saw of someone serving people, of being part of your community.

My father’s footsteps were some of the first I ever wanted to walk in – literally. I always told him that I wanted to grow up and deliver the mail and walk the route just like him.

And obviously I didn’t go in that direction. But if you ever come to Washington, DC and visit the EPA Headquarters, today I sit in the office where the Post Master General once sat. Every morning I walk past the seal of the US Postal Service and I think about my father, and what he taught me about service.

My father passed away years ago. I think about what it would mean to him to see me here today, and to know that the path that brought me here is the one he started me on.

As I got older and learned more about my history, I became acquainted with the many names of this movement – names I know as historical figures, but names some of you knew as friends.

One thing I learned is that the first steps on my own path were first taken by extraordinary women. Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Myrlie Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, who played such a role here in Selma, and the others who marched and faced violence and went to jail to make our nation a more equal place – a place where men and women of every race had the same fair shot.

I remember that the Montgomery Bus Boycotts got their start because of the actions of the brave African American woman Rosa Parks. I think of Coretta Scott King, who walked with the Sanitation Workers in Memphis after her husband was murdered. I think of Dr. Dorothy Height, who started her Civil Rights work at 25 years old – and was still taking action to ensure equality and opportunity for every American at the age of 96, when I had the great honor of meeting her and working with her.

I also think of my mother, who endured the Jim Crow laws. My mother who was our family’s strength when my father had a heart attack, and passed away during my sophomore year of High School.

I think of my mother who lost her home to the floods in Hurricane Katrina, when she returned to her neighborhood and sat on the sidewalk in a wheelchair to watch the demolition crews remove everything from the house where she had raised a family and lived for decades.

I think of all the mothers, grandmothers and aunts whose perseverance helped nurture and empower the women of my generation. They passed down the values and culture that give us strength today, and every place that the soles of our feet have tread upon, they have given to us.

It is because of these things that I have the extraordinary honor to serve as the first African American Administrator of the EPA, and to work for the first African American President of the United States.

Protecting health and the environment is the role that I have chosen in the work of my generation. I know that the Promised Land we are moving toward will not be a place where the water, air and land are polluted.

My part in this Joshua Generation is to make sure that when we reach the Promised Land, it’s not going to be a place where pollution weighs heavily on our health and our prosperity.

Heart disease, cancer and respiratory illness are three of the top four most fatal health threats in America. All of these illnesses have been linked to pollution in our air and water. And all three illnesses have an overwhelming impact on black communities.

African Americans are entering emergency rooms for asthma treatments at three-and-a-half times the average rate that whites do. We die from asthma attacks twice as often. Mortality rates for cancer are higher for us than for any other group. And heart disease is the most fatal illness in the black community.

If we want true equality, then we can’t let the heaviest burdens of pollution and health threats fall on our poorest communities. We can’t ignore the disparities in the environmental health threats facing African Americans. And we can’t sit back while environmental degradation chases jobs and opportunities out of our neighborhoods.

This is just one place where the Joshua Generation still has work to do.

I began today by borrowing from scripture, so let me close by borrowing from another source of wisdom that has been a strong presence in this movement and in this pulpit – Reverend Joseph Lowery.

Now, Reverend Lowery has said some memorable things. But what I remember best are his words at the memorial for Rosa Parks, when he said that we can’t do justice to her memory by letting our tribute end in ceremony.

Reverend Lowery said that “You have to move from ceremony, to sacrament.” We have to do more than just honor the history – in fact, we do it little honor if we don’t keep moving forward.

This is the call to all of us who are part of the Joshua generation.

I am here today as a beneficiary of the actions and sacrifices that many men and women have made.

The gatherings that we experience everyday, of so many diverse groups of people, would have been almost unthinkable 40 years ago. In many places, they would have been illegal 50 years ago.

I am part of the most diverse cabinet in American history, made up of men and women from different heritages and different backgrounds. The election that gave us this opportunity to serve was made up of the most racially and ethnically diverse group of people that have ever voted in any presidential election.

Every place that the soles of our feet have tread upon is another step in the long march forward. They are steps that we took by the grace of God and the work of the generation before us.

And we still have a long way to go. In this generation, we must “Be strong and of a good courage,” as God commanded Joshua. And we must remember that Joshua still needed God’s miracles to continue the journey that began with Moses.

He needed a miracle to halt the waters of the Jordan and allow the people to cross.

He had his followers gather up 12 stones from the riverbed, and establish a memorial so that the children would remember their history.

What will our 12 stones be? What will this generation leave behind to let our children know what challenges we have overcome?

One stone for closing the achievement gap in education. One for environmental justice. One for rebuilding our cities.

One stone for helping the African American families that are still living in an economic recession today. One for bringing health care to every person. One for ending the epidemics of violence and drugs that have ended too many promising lives.

And certainly one stone to remind us to keep marching until the day that people are more focused on laws that make it easier for Americans to vote – not harder.

We still have to earn the title of “the Joshua Generation.” As we do that, the Moses Generation that marched miles, that endured beatings and ridicule, and that still was able to part the waters for us – your work is our inspiration.

I’m proud to join in honoring you with ceremonies like this one, and I pledge to honor you with the sacrament of my work.

Thank you for bringing us this far, and for giving us what we need to keep marching. If your feet are tired, I hope that your souls are rested.

Thank you very much. God bless you.