"An Honest Government, A Hopeful Future": Remarks of Senator Barack Obama at the University of Nairobi

University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya | August 28, 2006

The first time I came to Kenya was in 1987. I had just finished three years of work as a community organizer in low-income neighborhoods of Chicago, and was about to enroll in law school. My sister, Auma, was teaching that year at this university, and so I came to stay with her for a month.

My experience then was very different than it has been on this trip. Instead of a motorcade, we traveled in my sister's old VW Beetle, which even then was already ten years old. When it broke down in front of Uhuru Park, we had to push until some joakalis came to fix it by the side of the road. I slept on the couch of my sister's apartment, not a fancy hotel, and often took my meals at a small tea-house in downtown Nairobi. When we went upcountry, we traveled by train and matatu, with chickens and collard greens and sometimes babies placed in my lap.

But it was a magical trip. To begin with, I discovered the warmth and sense of community that the people of Kenya possess - their sense of hopefulness even in the face of great difficulty. I discovered the beauty of the land, a beauty that haunts you long after you've left.

And most importantly for me, I discovered the story of my father's life, and the story of his father before him.

I learned that my grandfather had been a cook for the British and, although he was a respected elder in his village, he was called "boy" by his employers for most of his life. I learned about the brutal repression of Operation Anvil, the days of rape and torture in the "Pipeline" camps, the lives that so many gave, and how my grandfather had been arrested briefly during this period, despite being at the periphery of Kenya's liberation struggles.

I learned how my father had grown up in a tiny village called Alego, near Siaya, during this period of tumult. I began to understand and appreciate the distance he had traveled - from being a boy herding goats to a student at the University of Hawaii and Harvard University to the respected economist that he was upon his return to Kenya. In many ways, he embodied the new Africa of the early Sixties, a man who had obtained the knowledge of the Western world, and sought to bring it back home, where he hoped he could help create a new nation.

And yet, I discovered that for all his education, my father's life ended up being filled with disappointments. His ideas about how Kenya should progress often put him at odds with the politics of tribe and patronage, and because he spoke his mind, sometimes to a fault, he ended up being fired from his job and prevented from finding work in the country for many, many years. And on a more personal level, because he never fully reconciled the traditions of his village with more modern conceptions of family - because he related to women as his father had, expecting them to obey him no matter what he did - his family life was unstable, and his children never knew him well.

In many ways, then, my family's life reflects some of the contradictions of Kenya, and indeed, the African continent as a whole. The history of Africa is a history of ancient kingdoms and great traditions; the story of people fighting to be free from colonial rule; the heroism of not only of great men like Nkrumah and Kenyatta and Mandela, but also ordinary people who endured great hardship, from Ghana to South Africa, to secure self-determination in the face of great odds.

But for all the progress that has been made, we must surely acknowledge that neither Kenya nor the African continent have yet fulfilled their potential - that the hopefulness of the post-colonial era has been replaced by cynicism and sometimes despair, and that true freedom has not yet been won for those struggling to live on less than a few shillings a day, for those who have fallen prey to HIV/AIDS or malaria, to those ordinary citizens who continue to find themselves trapped in the crossfire of war or ethnic conflict.

One statistic powerfully describes this unfulfilled promise. In early 1960's, as Kenya was gaining its independence, its gross national product was not very different from that of South Korea. Today, South Korea's economy is forty times larger than Kenya's.

How can we explain this fact? Certainly it is not due to lack of effort on the part of ordinary Kenyans - we know how hard Kenyans are willing to work, the tremendous sacrifices that Kenyan mothers make for their children, the Herculean efforts that Kenyan fathers make for their families. We know as well the talent, the intelligence, and the creativity that exists in this country. And we know how much this land is blessed - just as the entire African continent is blessed - with great gifts and riches.

So what explains this? I believe there a number of factors at work.

Kenya, like many African nations did not come of age under the best historical circumstances. It suffers from the legacy of colonialism, of national boundaries that were drawn without regard to the political and tribal alignments of indigenous peoples, and that therefore fed conflict and tribal strife.

Kenya was also forced to rapidly move from a highly agrarian to a more urban, industrialized nation. This means that the education and health care systems - issues that my own nation more than 200 years old still struggles with - lag behind, impacting its development.

Third, Kenya is hurt from factors unique to Africa's geography and place in the world -- disease, distance from viable markets and especially terms of trade. When African nations were just gaining independence, industrialized nations had decades of experience building their domestic economies and navigating the international financial system. And, as Frederick Douglass once stated: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will." As a result, many African nations have been asked to liberalize their markets without reciprocal concessions from mature economies. This lack of access for Africa's agriculture and commodities has restricted an important engine of economic growth. Other issues, such as resource extraction and the drain of human capital have also been major factors.

As a Senator from the United States, I believe that my country, and other nations, have an obligation and self-interest in being full partners with Kenya and with Africa. And, I will do my part to shape an intelligent foreign policy that promotes peace and prosperity. A foreign policy that gives hope and opportunity to the people of this great continent.

But, Kenya must do its part. It cannot wait for other nations to act first. The hard truth is that nations, by and large, will act in their self-interest and if Kenya does not act, it will fall behind.

It's more than just history and outside influences that explain why Kenya lags behind. Like many nations across this continent, where Kenya is failing is in its ability to create a government that is transparent and accountable. One that serves its people and is free from corruption.

There is no doubt that what Kenyans have accomplished with this independence is both impressive and inspiring. Among African nations, Kenya remains a model for representative democracy - a place where many different ethnic factions have found a way to live and work together in peace and stability. You enjoy a robust civil society; a press that's free, fair, and honest; and a strong partnership with my own country that has resulted in critical cooperation on terrorist issues, real strides in fighting disease and poverty, and an important alliance on fostering regional stability.

And yet, the reason I speak of the freedom that you fought so hard to win is because today that freedom is in jeopardy. It is being threatened by corruption.

Corruption is not a new problem. It's not just a Kenyan problem, or an African problem. It's a human problem, and it has existed in some form in almost every society. My own city of Chicago has been the home of some of the most corrupt local politics in American history, from patronage machines to questionable elections. In just the last year, our own U.S. Congress has seen a representative resign after taking bribes, and several others fall under investigation for using their public office for private gain.

But while corruption is a problem we all share, here in Kenya it is a crisis - a crisis that's robbing an honest people of the opportunities they have fought for - the opportunity they deserve.

I know that while recent reports have pointed to strong economic growth in this country, 56% of Kenyans still live in poverty. And I know that the vast majority of people in this country desperately want to change this.

It is painfully obvious that corruption stifles development - it siphons off scarce resources that could improve infrastructure, bolster education systems, and strengthen public health. It stacks the deck so high against entrepreneurs that they cannot get their job-creating ideas off the ground. In fact, one recent survey showed that corruption in Kenya costs local firms 6% of their revenues, the difference between good-paying jobs in Kenya or somewhere else. And corruption also erodes the state from the inside out, sickening the justice system until there is no justice to be found, poisoning the police forces until their presence becomes a source of insecurity rather than comfort.

Corruption has a way of magnifying the very worst twists of fate. It makes it impossible to respond effectively to crises -- whether it's the HIV/AIDS pandemic or malaria or crippling drought.

What's worse - corruption can also provide opportunities for those who would harness the fear and hatred of others to their agenda and ambitions.

It can shield a war criminal - even one like Felicien Kabuga, suspected of helping to finance and orchestrate the Rwandan genocide - by allowing him to purchase safe haven for a time and robbing all humanity of the opportunity to bring the criminal to justice.

Terrorist attacks - like those that have shed Kenyan blood and struck at the heart of the Kenyan economy - are facilitated by customs and border officers who can be paid off, by police forces so crippled by corruption that they do not protect the personal safety of Kenyans walking the streets of Nairobi, and by forged documents that are easy to find in a climate where graft and fraud thrive.

Some of the worst actors on the international stage can also take advantage of the collective exhaustion and outrage that people feel with official corruption, as we've seen with Islamic extremists who promise purification, but deliver totalitarianism. Endemic corruption opens the door to this kind of movement, and in its wake comes a new set of distortions and betrayals of public trust.

In the end, if the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists - to protect them and to promote their common welfare - all else is lost. And this is why the struggle against corruption is one of the great struggles of our time.

The good news is that there are already signs of progress here. Willingness to report corruption is increasingly significantly in Kenya. The Kenyan media has been courageous in uncovering and reporting on some of the most blatant abuses of the system, and there has been a growing recognition among people and politicians that this is a critical issue.

Among other things, this recognition resulted in the coalition that came to power in the December elections of 2002. This coalition succeeded by promising change, and their early gestures - the dismissal of the shaky judges, the renewed vigor of the investigation into the Goldenberg scandal, the calls for real disclosure of elected officials' personal wealth - were all promising.

But elections are not enough. In a true democracy, it is what happens between elections that is the true measure of how a government treats its people.

Today, we're starting to see that the Kenyan people want more than a simple changing of the guard, more than piecemeal reforms to a crisis that's crippling their country. The Kenyan people are crying out for real change, and whether one voted orange or banana in last year's referendum, the message that many Kenyans seemed to be sending was one of dissatisfaction with the pace of reform, and real frustration with continued tolerance of corruption at high levels.

And so we know that there is more work to be done - more reforms to be made. I don't have all the solutions or think that they'll be easy, but there are a few places that a country truly committed to reform could start.

We know that the temptation to take a bribe is greater when you're not making enough on the job. And we also know that the more people there are on the government payroll, the more likely it is that someone will be encouraged to take a bribe. So if the government found ways to downsize the bureaucracy - to cut out the positions that aren't necessary or useful - it could use the extra money to increase the salary of other government officials.

Of course, the best way to reduce bureaucracy and increase pay is to create more private sector jobs. And the way to create good jobs is when the rules of a society are transparent - when there's a clear and advertised set of laws and regulations regarding how to start a business, what it takes to own property, how to go about getting a loan - there is less of a chance that some corrupt bureaucrat will make up his own rules that suit only his interests. Clarifying these rules and focusing resources on building a judicial system that can enforce them and resolve disputes should be a primary goal of any government suffering from corruption.

In addition, we know that the more information the public is provided, the easier it will be for your Kenyan brothers and sisters out in the villages to evaluate whether they are being treated fairly by their public servants or not. Wealth declarations do little good if no one can access them, and accountability in government spending is not possible if no one knows how much was available and allocated to a given project in the first place.

Finally, ethnic-based tribal politics has to stop. It is rooted in the bankrupt idea that the goal of politics or business is to funnel as much of the pie as possible to one's family, tribe, or circle with little regard for the public good. It stifles innovation and fractures the fabric of the society. Instead of opening businesses and engaging in commerce, people come to rely on patronage and payback as a means of advancing. Instead of unifying the country to move forward on solving problems, it divides neighbor from neighbor.

An accountable, transparent government can break this cycle. When people are judged by merit, not connections, then the best and brightest can lead the country, people will work hard, and the entire economy will grow - everyone will benefit and more resources will be available for all, not just select groups.

Of course, in the end, one of the strongest weapons your country has against corruption is the ability of you, the people, to stand up and speak out about the injustices you see. The Kenyan people are the ultimate guardians against abuses.

The world knows the names of Wangari Maathai and John Githongo, who are fighting against the insidious corruption that has weakened Kenya. But there are so many others, some of whom I'm meeting during my visit here - Betty Murungi, Ken Njau, Jane Onyango, Maina Kiai, Milly Odhiombo, and Hussein Khalid. As well as numerous Kenyan men and women who have refused to pay bribes to get civil servants to perform their duties; the auditors and inspectors general who have done the job before them accurately and fairly, regardless of where the facts have led; the journalists who asked questions and pushed for answers when it may have been more lucrative to look the other way, or whip up a convenient fiction. And then there are anonymous Kenyan whistleblowers who show us what is, so that we can all work together to demand what should be.

By rejecting the insulting idea that corruption is somehow a part of Kenyan culture, these heroes reveal the very opposite - they reveal a strength and integrity of character that can build a great country, a great future. By focusing on building strong, independent institutions - like an anti-corruption commission with real authority - rather than cults of personality, they make a contribution to their country that will last longer than their own lives. They fight the fight of our time.

Looking out at this crowd of young people, I have faith that you will fight this fight too.

You will decide if your leaders will be held accountable, or if you will look the other way.

You will decide if the standards and the rules will be the same for everyone - regardless of ethnicity or of wealth.

And you will determine the direction of this country in the 21st century - whether the hard work of the many is lost to the selfish desires of a few, or whether you build an open, honest, stronger Kenya where everyone rises together.

This is the Kenya that so many who came before you envisioned - all those men and women who struggled and sacrificed and fought for the freedom you enjoy today.

I know that honoring their memory and making that freedom real may seem like an impossible task - an effort bigger than you can imagine - but sometimes all it takes to move us there is doing what little you can to right the wrongs you see.

As I said at the outset, I did not know my father well - he returned to Kenya from America when I was still young. Since that time I have known him through stories - those my mother would tell and those I heard from my relatives here in Kenya on my last trip to this country.

I know from these stories that my father was not a perfect man - that he made his share of mistakes and disappointed his share of people in his lifetime.

As our parents' children, we have the opportunity to learn from these mistakes and disappointments. We have the opportunity to muster the courage to fulfill the promise of our forefathers and lead our great nations towards a better future.

In today's Kenya - a Kenya already more open and less repressive than in my father's day - it is that courage that will bring the reform so many of you so desperately want and deserve. I wish all of you luck in finding this courage in the days and months to come, and I want you to know that as your ally, your friend, and your brother, I will be there to help in any way I can. Thank you.

Xavier University Commencement Address

New Orleans, Louisiana | August 11, 2006

Good afternoon President Francis, the Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, family, friends, and the Class of 2006.

I want to start by thanking you all for allowing me to share in your miracle today. Over the past year there has been no shortage of doubts about whether this college would live to see another commencement - and doubts remain still about the future of this great city. But on this summer's day in New Orleans, less than one year after the worst storm in American history beat down your door, I look out at the largest class to ever graduate from this college and know that one thing is certain - Xavier University is back.

I have to say that I'm pretty humbled to be here. Each year there are hundreds of commencements in this country. All are hopeful, some are inspiring, and most of you probably won't even remember who your speaker was ten years from now. As a rule, they usually involve an old guy like me giving young folks like you advice about what to expect in the real world - advice about the challenges you'll face and the obstacles you'll have to overcome.

But this is different. In the last month, I have walked among New Orleans' battered homes and empty streets and scattered debris that prove armies aren't the only ones who can wage wars on cities. I have seen pictures of Xavier after the storm - the submerged classrooms and the shattered windows and the dorm rooms that were left with books sitting open on desks and clothes still unpacked on the bed. And I have heard the story of nearly 400 students and faculty who were trapped on campus in the days after Katrina - waiting on the roof to be rescued with a sign that simply read "Help Us."

And as I thought about all of this, it dawned on me that when it comes to giving advice about challenges and obstacles, it's you who could probably teach the rest of us a thing or two about what it takes to overcome.

I could give you a lecture on courage, but some of you know what it is to wait huddled in the dark without electricity or running water, wondering if a helicopter or boat will come for you before the gunshots get closer or the food runs out or the waters rise.

I could talk at length about perseverance, but this is a class that was forced to scatter to schools across the country at the beginning of your senior year, leaving everything you knew behind while you waited to find out if you could ever come back.

And I could go on and on about the importance of community - about what it means to care for each other - but this is a school where so many sacrificed so much in order to open your doors in January; a triumph that showed the rest of America that there are those who refuse to desert this city and its people no matter what.

Yours has been an education that cannot simply be measured in the tests you've taken or the diploma you're about to receive. For it has also been an education in humanity, brought about by a force of nature - a lesson in both our capacity for good and in the imperfections of man; in our ability to rise to great challenges and our tendency to sometimes fall short of our obligations to one another.

Some will take an entire lifetime to experience these lessons - others never will. But as some of Katrina's youngest survivors, you've had a front row seat.

So what does this mean for you?

Well, lessons can be just as easily unlearned as they are learned. Time may heal, but it can also cloud the memory and remove us further from that initial core of concern.

And so what this all means is that today and every day, you have a responsibility to remember what happened here in New Orleans. To make it a part of who you are. To let its lessons guide you as face your own challenges.

After all, Katrina may well be the most dramatic test you face in life, but it will by no means be the last. There will be quiet tests of character - the shoulder you lend a friend during their time of need; the way you raise your children; the care you give a loved one who's sick or dying; the integrity and honesty with which you carry yourself.

There will be powerful personal tests - the profession you choose, the legacy you leave, your ability to handle failure and disappointment.

And of course, there are the tests you will face as citizen - whether you use your voice to rage against injustice; whether you use your time to give back to your community; whether you use your passion to commit yourself to a cause larger than yourself.

In most of these tests, there are two different paths you can take.

One is easy. After graduating from a great school like Xavier, you'll pretty much be able to punch your own ticket - which means you can take your diploma, walk off this stage, leave this city, and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy.

You can live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what's going in your own little circle.

And when you turn on the TV or open the newspaper and hear about all the trouble in the world, there will be pundits and politicians who'll tell you that it's someone else's fault and someone else's problem to fix.

They'll tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they're all lazy or weak of spirit. That the immigrants who risk their lives to cross a desert have nothing to contribute to this country and no desire to embrace our ideals. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can't learn and won't learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes in Darfur are somebody else's problem to take care of.

And when you hear all this, the easiest thing in the world will be to do nothing at all. To turn off the TV, put down the paper, and walk away from the stories about Iraq or poverty or violence or joblessness or hopelessness. To go about your busy lives - to remain detached; to remain indifferent; to remain safe.

But if you should ever think about taking this path, I ask you first to remember.

Remember witnessing the pain that neglect and indifference can cause - how entire neighborhoods in this city were left to drown because no one thought to make sure that every person had the means to escape. Remember what happens when responsibilities are ignored and bucks are passed - when the White House blames FEMA and FEMA blames the state of Louisiana and pretty soon no one's fixing the problem because everyone thought somebody else would. And whenever you're tempted to view the poor or the ill or the persecuted as "those people" - people in their own world with their own problems - remember always your neighbors in places like the 9th ward; men and women and children who, just like you, wanted desperately to escape to somewhere better.

And if you remember all of this - if you remember what happened here in New Orleans - if you allow it to change you forever - know that there is another path you can take.

This one is more difficult. It asks more of you. It asks you to leave here and not just pursue your own individual dreams, but to help perfect our collective dream as a nation. It asks you to realize there is more to life than being rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. It asks you to recognize that there are people out there who need you.

You know, there's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us - the child who's hungry, the steelworker who's been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town.

When you think like this - when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers - it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

For each of you, this desire to do for others and serve your communities will come even easier if you allow yourself to remember what you saw here in New Orleans.

Because aside from all the bad that came from Katrina - the failures and the neglect, the incompetence and the apathy - you were also witness to a good that many forgot was even possible.

You saw people from every corner of this country drop what they were doing, leave their homes, and come to New Orleans - Americans who didn't know a soul in the entire city who found their own piece of driftwood, built their own make-shift raft, and waded through the streets of this city, saving anyone they could.
You saw the doctors and the nurses who refused to leave their city and their patients even when they were told time and again by local officials that it was no longer safe - even when helicopters were waiting to take them away. Men and women who stayed to care for the sick and dying long after their medical equipment and electricity were gone.

And after the storm had passed, you saw a spirit of generosity that spanned an entire globe, with billions upon billions in donations coming from tiny, far-off nations like Qatar and Sri Lanka. Think about that. These are places a lot of folks couldn't even identify on a map. Sri Lanka was still recovering from the devastation caused by last year's Tsunami. And yet, they heard about our tragedy, and they gave.

Remember always this goodness. Remember always that while many in Washington and on all levels of government failed New Orleans, there were plenty of ordinary people who displayed extraordinary humanity during this city's hour of need.

In the years to come, return this favor to those who are forced to weather their own storms - be it the loss of a job or a slide into poverty; an unexpected illness or an unforeseen eviction. And in returning these favors, seek also to make this a nation of no more Katrinas. Make this a nation where we never again leave behind any American by ensuring that every American has a job that can support a family and health care in case they get sick and a good education for their child and a secure retirement they can count on. Make this a nation where we are never again caught unprepared to meet the challenges of our time - where we free ourselves from a dependence on oil and protect our cities from both forces of terror and nature.

Make this a nation that is worthy of the sacrifices of so many of its citizens, and in doing so, make real the observation made by a visitor to our country so many centuries ago: "America is great because Americans are good."

I ask you to take this second path - this harder path - not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

I ask you to take it because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on our collective salvation. And because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential.

It is said that faith is a belief in things not seen, and miracles, by their nature, are inexplicable gifts from God.

But sometimes, if we look hard enough at the moments we triumph against the greatest of odds, we can see His will at work in the people He loves.

It's now well-known in this community that when your President, Norman Francis, promised to re-open this school by January, he joked that his decision would be recorded by history as either "crazy and stupid" or "bold and visionary."

And when I heard that, I wondered where you find the courage to make such a crazy, visionary promise - and where you find the commitment to keep it.

And I thought, Norman Francis is someone who remembers - remembers where he came from, remembers the lessons he learned, remembers the opportunities he's had, and lives his life according to those memories.

Born in Lafayette before Civil Rights and Voting Rights were even a possibility, this is a man who was raised in poverty, earning extra money for his parents as a child by shining shoes. He studied hard through high school, put himself through Xavier by working long hours in the library, and became the first ever African American to be accepted into Loyola's Law School.

He graduated that law school and could've gone anywhere and made any amount of money - but Norman Francis wanted to help people learn because he remembered all the people who helped him.

And so he came back to Xavier, and he worked his way up through the ranks, and he became the first ever African-American president of this school at just thirty-six years old.

Since that day he has had many accolades and many chances to do whatever he wished with his life. He has been an advisor to four U.S. Presidents, served on a commission to the Vatican, and as President of the United Negro College Fund.

But through all of this, he decided to stay here in New Orleans, and build this university.

And so when Katrina tried to tear it down, you can understand why he refused to let that happen - why he put aside tending to the damage in his own house so that he could work on rebuilding this one - why he believed more than anything in his promise that these doors would open in January.

Norman Francis has helped make today's miracle because he has seen miracles at work in his own life. Now that you have seen one in yours, it's your turn to live a life committed to others, devoted to the impossible, and ever aware of the lessons you learned in New Orleans.

I've noticed that in the rebuilding effort throughout this city, one of the last things to come back, and yet the easiest to notice, is the greenery that makes any community seem alive. And as I saw a newly planted tree on my last trip here, I thought of a passage from the book of Job:

"There is hope for a tree if it be cut down that it will sprout again, and that its tender branch will not cease."

Katrina was not the end of the tough times for New Orleans, and you will continue to face your own tests and challenges in the years to come. But if someone were to ask me how the tree stands on this August day, I would tell them that the seeds have sprouted, the roots are strong, and I just saw more than 500 branches that are ready to grow again. Congratulations on your graduation. Thank you.

AFSCME National Convention, Remarks of Senator Barack Obama

Chicago, IL | August 07, 2006

We meet here at a challenging time for labor and a challenging time for America. All across the country, from nurses in Chicago to correctional officers in Atlanta to sanitation workers in L.A., Americans have been looking to the future with more anxiety than hope. As transformations in technology and communication have ushered in a global economy with new rules and new risks, they've watched their government do its best to try and shift those risks onto the backs of the American worker. And they wonder how they will ever keep up.

In coffee shops and town meetings, in VFW halls and right here in this room, the questions are all the same. Will I be able to leave my children a better world than I was given? Will I be able to save enough to send them to college or plan for a secure retirement? Will my job even be there tomorrow? Who will stand up for me in this new world?

In this time of change and uncertainty, these questions are expected - but I want you to know today they are by no means unique. Throughout our history, they have been asked and then answered by Americans who have stood in your shoes and shared your concerns.

In the middle of the last century, on the restless streets of Memphis, it was a group of AFSCME sanitation workers who took up this charge. For years they had served their city without complaint, picking up other people's trash for little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them "walking buzzards," and in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

But as the civil rights movement gained steam and they watched the marches and saw the boycotts and heard about the passage of voting rights, the workers in Memphis decided that they'd had enough, and in 1968, over 1,000 went on strike.

Their demands were simple. Recognition of their union. The right to bargain. A few cents more an hour.

But the opposition was fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned back with mace. One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year old boy lay dead.

And still, the city would not give in.

Now, the workers could have gone home, or they could've gone back to work, or they could've waited for someone else to help them, but they didn't. They kept marching. They drew ministers and high school students and civil rights activists to their cause, and at the beginning of the third straight month, Dr. King himself came down to Memphis.

At this point, the story of the sanitation workers merges with the larger saga of the Civil Rights Movement. On April 3rd, we know that King gave his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" sermon. On April 4th, he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine hotel. And on April 8th, a day before he was buried, his wife Coretta led the sanitation workers on one final march through the city of Memphis - a march that would culminate in the union contract that the workers had sought for so long.

This is the legacy you inherit today. It's a legacy of courage, a legacy of action, a legacy of achieving the greatest triumphs amidst the greatest odds. It's a story as American as any - that at the edge of despair, in the shadow of hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision that if we stand together, we rise together.

What those workers made real in Memphis - and what we have to make real today - is the idea that in this country, we value the labor of every American. That we're willing to respect that labor and reward it with a few basic guarantees - wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that's dignified, working conditions that are safe.

The struggle to secure these guarantees has always been at the heart of the labor movement - and the opposition has always been powerful. But today, we're facing a challenge like none we've seen before.

At the very moment that globalization is changing the rules of the game on the American worker - making it harder to compete with cheaper, highly-skilled workers all over the world - the people running Washington are responding with a philosophy that says government has no role in solving these problems; that the services you all provide every day are better left to the whims of the private sector.

They're telling us we're better off if we dismantle government - if we divvy it up into individual tax breaks, hand 'em out, and encourage everyone to go buy your own health care, your own retirement security, your own child care, their own schools, your own private security force, your own roads, their own levees...

It's called the Ownership Society in Washington. But in our past there has been another term for it - Social Darwinism - every man or women for him or herself.

It allows us to say to those whose health care or tuition may rise faster than they can afford - life isn't fair. It allows us to say to the child who didn't have the foresight to choose the right parents or be born in the right suburb - pick yourself up by your bootstraps. It lets us say to the guy who worked twenty or thirty years in the factory and then watched his plant move out to Mexico or China - we're sorry, but you're on your own.

It's a bracing idea. It's a tempting idea. And it's the easiest thing in the world.

But there's just one problem. It doesn't work. It ignores our history. It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways and the internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools - that has allowed all of us to prosper. And it has been the ability of working men and women to join together in unions that has allowed our rising tide to lift every boat.

Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on individual initiative, on a belief in the free market. But it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, of mutual responsibility. The idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we're all in it together and everybody's got a shot at opportunity.

Americans know this. We know that government can't solve all our problems - and we don't want it to.

But we also know that there are some things we can't do on our own. We know that there are some things we do better together.

We know that we've been called in churches and mosques, synagogues and Sunday schools to love our neighbors as ourselves; to be our brother's keeper; to be our sister's keeper. That we have individual responsibility, but we also have collective responsibility to each other.

That's what America is. That's what those workers in Memphis fought for. And that's what we fight for today.

Some of what we need to do is clear. When you have a Republican Congress that says "no" to organizing rights, "no" to overtime pay, "no" to a higher minimum wage, "no" to Social Security, and "no" to Medicaid, it's time to say "no" to that Congress and put Democrats in charge come November.

But if we really want to lead - if we really hope to convince the country that our vision of government is better than theirs - we're gonna need more than just "no." We're gonna need to tell the country what our plan is for the 21st century worker - what we'll do to give every American the chance to get ahead and raise their family.

I won't stand up here and say that coming up with this strategy will be easy, or pretend to know all the answers.

But there's a few places we can start.

We can start by fixing our schools to make sure every child in America has the education and the skills they need to compete. We can start by making sure that college is affordable for every American who wants to go. And by giving unions a real role in creating a real system of lifelong learning so that workers who lose a job really can retrain for other high-wage jobs.

In this new economy, we can start giving our workers a chance by making sure that no matter where you work or how many times you switch jobs, you will have health care and a pension you can take with you always.

We'll never rise together if we allow medical bills to swallow family budgets or let people retire penniless after a lifetime of hard work, and so we can start by demanding that when it comes to commitments made to working men and women on health care and pensions, a promise made is a promise kept.

And in a world where two-income households are trying to juggle work and family, we can start giving workers a chance with policies that give families a chance. When a parent takes parental leave, we shouldn't act like caring for a newborn baby is a three-month break - we should let them keep their salary. When parents are working and their children need care, we should make sure that care is affordable, and that our kids can go to school earlier and longer so they have a safe place to learn while their parents are at work. And when a mom or a dad has to leave work to care for a sick child, we should make sure it doesn't result in a pink slip.

Our vision of America is not one where a big government runs our lives; it's one that gives every American the opportunity to make the most of their lives. It's not one that tells us we're on our own, it's one that realizes that we rise or fall together as one people.

And yet, we also know that, in the end, neither policy nor politics can replace heart and courage in the struggle you now face. Because in the brief history of the American experiment, it has been the ability of ordinary Americans to act on both that has allowed our nation to achieve extraordinary things.

Nearly forty years ago, the strike in Memphis came to an end.

But today, the march goes on.

Every year, on April 4th, the sanitation workers of Local 1733 gather again to march the route that led them to justice so long ago. Sometimes they walk the whole way, other years a bus comes to carry them the last few miles.

They march to remember, but they also march because they know our journey isn't complete - they know we have fights left to win; that we have dreams still unfulfilled.

A few years back, one of these workers, a man named Malcolm Pryor, told a reporter, "You have to remind people: We are not free yet. As long as I march, Dr. King's soul is still rejoicing that people are still trying."

And so today I ask you to keep marching.

As long as there are those who are jobless, I ask you to keep marching for jobs.

As long as there are those who struggle to raise a family on low wages and few benefits, I ask you to keep marching for opportunity.

As long as there are those who can't organize or unionize or bargain for a better life, I ask you to keep marching for solidarity.

And as long as there are those who try to privatize our government and decimate our social programs and peddle a philosophy of trickle-down and on-your-own, I ask you to keep marching for a vision of America where we rise or fall as one nation under God.

My friends, it's time again to march for freedom. Time again to march for hope. Time again to march towards the tomorrow that so many have reached for so many times in our past. I know we can get there, and I can't wait to try. Thank you, and good luck.

Statement of Senator Barack Obama Vote against the Gulf of Mexico Energy Bill

August 1, 2006

Every one of us in Congress has heard from our constituents about the high cost of gas. A gallon is now $3 or more in most parts of the country, and there is every reason to believe that figure will continue to climb throughout the rest of the summer.

Americans are asking their members of Congress to help lower some of these costs. And we should do that. But let's not kid ourselves. This is a problem that was decades in the making, and short-term political solutions - whether it's a tax rebate or more legislation to stop price gouging - aren't going to be the complete answer.

To be sure, most of these proposals would do no harm, and many would provide Americans some temporary relief at the pump. But in the long term, we can't rely solely on quick fixes designed to placate an anxious public.

We need solutions designed to permanently lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, both Congress and the White House have been unwilling to take the politically difficult steps necessary to confront one of the most pressing economic and national security challenges of the 21st century.

A perfect example is the bill before us. It does do some good things: it marginally increases the supply of oil, and it provides a financial boost to Gulf Coast states that could use the help.

But fundamentally, the bill only focuses on part of the problem - our inadequate supply of oil. Unfortunately, increasing supply can't be our only answer. Even if we opened up every square inch of this country for drilling, America only has 3% of the world's oil reserves. With our own Energy Department telling us that our demand for oil will jump 40% over the next 20 years and countries like China and India adding millions of cars to their roads, this means that if we truly hope to solve this problem, we must focus on reducing demand.

Members on both sides of the aisle have suggested some innovative ways to do this. Senator Lugar and I introduced the America Fuels Act to increase the production of homegrown biofuels. And Senator Bunning and I have worked on a bill to produce liquid fuels from coal.

Unfortunately, we're not going to have a debate this week on how to reduce the demand for oil, because we weren't allowed to add any amendments to this bill that would focus on that problem. Because contrary to the judgment of every credible person who has examined our nation's energy woes, the Republican leadership in the Senate believes we can solve our energy problems by just drilling more. That's not only dishonest -- it's a disservice to our constituents who want us to work together to solve this crisis.

I'd like to spend a few minutes today discussing two of the proposals that should have been part of this energy debate - two proposals that could have made this bill worthwhile.

First, we need to start producing cars that use less oil. Thirty-three years ago, this nation faced an energy crisis that affected every American. In the shadow of a war against Israel, the Arab nations of OPEC chose to embargo shipments of crude oil to the West. The shocks were felt in national economies worldwide. Washington lawmakers responded by creating daylight savings time and a national speed limit. A new Department of Energy and a Strategic Petroleum Reserve was established. And Congress enacted Corporate Average Fuel Economy - or CAFE - standards, the first-ever requirements to reduce petroleum consumption in the vehicles we drive.

As a result, the gas mileage of cars doubled from 14 miles per gallon in 1976 to 27.5 mpg for cars in 1985. Today, CAFE saves us about 3 million barrels of oil per day, making it among the most successful energy-saving measures ever adopted. But that decade's worth of fuel consumption improvements ended more than 20 years ago, because CAFE standards are the same today as they were in 1985 - 27.5 mpg for cars.

To address this problem, I have joined with Senator Lugar and a bipartisan coalition of senators to propose the Fuel Economy Reform Act, which we have also filed as an amendment to the OCS bill.

This amendment would establish regular, continual, and incremental progress in fuel economy, but still preserve the expertise and flexibility of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - or NHTSA - to determine how to meet those targets.

Under this proposal, CAFE standards would increase by 4 percent every year unless NHTSA can justify a deviation in that rate by proving that the increase is either technologically unachievable, would materially reduce the safety of automobiles, or is not cost-effective. For too long, the presumption has been that the public would have to prove to the auto industry why it should raise fuel economy standards. This proposal would flip that presumption by asking the auto industry to prove why it can't raise those standards.

Under this system, if the 4 percent annualized improvement occurs for ten years, we would save 1.3 million barrels of oil per day - an astounding 20 billion gallons of gasoline per year. If gasoline is just $2.50 per gallon, consumers would save $50 billion at the pump in 2018. By 2018, we would be cutting global warming pollution by 220 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases.

And yet, auto executives are right when they say that transitioning to more fuel-efficient automobiles would be costly at a time of sagging profits and stiff competition, and that's precisely why the federal government shouldn't let the industry face these challenges on their own.

The Fuel Economy Act provides tax incentives to retool parts and assembly plants. But we should do more than that. We need to help the Big Three automakers with one of their largest expenses, namely, retiree health care costs, which ran almost $6.7 billion just last year. For GM, these health care costs represent $1,500 of the price of every GM car that's made, which is more than what they pay for the steel.

To that end, I also have filed an amendment to this bill based on the Health Care for Hybrids Act that I introduced last year. That proposal would set up a voluntary program in which automakers could choose to receive federal financial assistance towards their retiree healthcare costs. In return, the automakers would be required to reinvest these savings into developing fuel-efficient vehicles.

With the American consumer demanding more hybrid vehicles - and that demand currently being filled by foreign automakers - this proposal could jumpstart the Big Three to commercialize new technology. More American hybrid cars also ensure that there is competition in this growing market, and would help keep car prices affordable.

If we had adopted these two proposals decades ago, when the call for energy independence was first issued in this country, today we wouldn't be nearly as beholden to the whims of oil-rich dictators and surging gas prices. And if we don't take these steps now, we will someday look back on today's $3 per gallon gasoline as the good old days. At that point, no amount of drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf will solve our problems.

We could have taken these common-sense steps now to reduce the demand for oil. We have the need, we have the technology, we have the resources - but with this bill, we refused to find the political will to get it done. We still owe it to the American public to find that will.

Unfortunately, this bill sends the wrong message. Instead of making tough political decisions about how to reduce our insatiable demand for oil, this bill continues to lull the American people into thinking that we can drill our way out of our energy problems. We can't, and for that reason, I plan to vote against this bill.