FROM: U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
New York, NY
April 23, 2015
Thank you very much, Under Secretary-General Gallach, for your introduction and thanks to the entire Department of Public Information team for the important work you do in telling the story of the work of the United Nations. You give people outside these walls a deeper understanding of the ideals that this institution was created 70 years ago to embody, and which we fight for every day.
And good evening ambassadors, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen and a special welcome to the young people from those twenty eight schools in New York and New Jersey. It is truly thrilling to look out and see so many young faces and I actually find myself asking whether the world would look differently if you were at more of our events at the UN. Because when we look out at your faces we really see the stakes of what we are trying to achieve and maybe if you were here more often we’d do a better job at overcoming divisions to promote human rights and human dignity and peace and security. So don’t make this your last visit to the UN. I hope to see more of you.
I have the privilege of just sharing a few thoughts with you before you see the remarkable film “Selma,” and I know you are here to do that. Tonight’s screening and discussion allow us an opportunity to look back 50 years, and to reflect on and be inspired by the determination of a group of people to change the course of history.
Let me take a moment to give a shout-out to the acclaimed director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay. Ava, as you know, has graciously agreed to join us to share her own reflections on what this moment in America’s history means, what it meant then and what it means now.
For those of you who know the story of the march from Selma to Montgomery, watching it tonight will bring you into the swirling clouds of tear gas, the snarl of those police dogs and the sickening thud of the nightsticks used against the peaceful marchers on Edmund Pettis Bridge. For those of you who are hearing this story for the first time, you will soon know the bravery of so many great American heroes, including Congressman John Lewis, and one of my predecessors, Ambassador Andrew Young. Their stubborn determination and complete dedication to their cause should inspire us to try harder – and to be better – today.
Make no mistake, the men and women who marched at Selma in 1965 had little on their side: not the law, not public opinion, not force of arms. What they had was courage in the face of oppression, faith in their right to be treated equally, and an iron will to end the injustices that kept most African-Americans in the South from being able to vote.
Those injustices were many. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and hostile registrars intimidated an already marginalized population. Limited registration hours excluded them, as they toiled in working class jobs day and night. Police harassed them while they were waiting in line to add their names to the voting rolls. In Dallas County, Alabama, where Selma was located, more than half of the county’s residents were Black, but only one percent of them were registered to vote in 1965. Think of that. One percent.
And so the marchers marched. And as they did, their footsteps jolted a sleeping nation awake. They built a movement and, through their sweat and their sacrifice, they got the vote that they had been denied, and this is a truly inspiring story. But later tonight when the credits roll, let us not forget that the story is not complete.
On the 50th anniversary of Selma and standing on that infamous bridge, President Obama said “From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, a new generation of young people can draw strength from this place.” Selma is a place where people without power changed forever a most powerful nation, and both their struggle against injustice and their courage to act are alive and well around the world. You’ll find the struggle in places like North Korea, where tens of thousands are being imprisoned in camps and subject to the most unspeakable tortures for so-called “crimes” ranging from speaking out to possessing a radio. In Russia, where telling the truth in print means risking your livelihood, or much more. Or in Burma, where claiming your identity as worthy of dignity and deserving of citizenship can mean risking your life.
And we ask of others what we ask of ourselves. The spirit of Selma must continue here in America. Just two years ago, the United States Supreme Court struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act – the legislation that was a victory for those marching on Selma and for our democracy. The decision effectively made it easier for states to put up obstacles to voting – for minorities, the poor, and the disabled. How is it possible in 2015 that one would put up obstacles to voting? President Obama has called on Congress to right this wrong, and throughout the country, civil society activists, many of them young people, are engaged in this modern day struggle for full civil rights. They and we will succeed. After all, our democracy is built on the hard work of righting wrongs again and again. Consider that just one month before the Supreme Court decision to degrade the Voting Rights Act, that same Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. It was a decision that brought us one step closer to ensuring that all Americans, including gay and lesbian Americans, have the same rights no matter who you are or who you love.
What will be our Selma? Against what injustices will we, will you, march? How will what you see up there on the screen inspire you to act out there in the world?
Thank you and enjoy the movie and the discussion.