The President of the United States has many invitations to speak, a thousand invitations for each one that I can accept. But when I heard about this memorial for A. Philip Randolph, I did not hesitate. I told my staff to cancel my other requests, and I wanted to be here personally.
I've had a chance to know some of the people who have already spoken. Bayard Rustin's words moved me deeply. And as I listened to him and thought about our country, I realized even more vividly that we are in a time of change, of doubt, of fear, of division, of uncertainty. When standards are transient and when we seek as individual human beings for some life which can inspire us, I doubt that there is a mother or a father in this Nation who, knowing A. Philip Randolph and what he was, would not want our sons and daughters to be like him.
It's not an accident that Mr. Rustin and the other members of his brotherhood called him "The Chief." That didn't mean that he was a domineering master, that he imposed his will on others, that he was an autocratic driver of those who worked under him and who looked to him for leadership. It meant that he was an object of admiration, of respect, even perhaps, of reverence.
When there was hardly any detectable civil rights movement in our country back in 1941, A. Philip Randolph led the march on Washington. As has been pointed out, he was scorned by those in power. And he was even feared somewhat by those who were oppressed, because his strong voice might create some disturbance in their own quiet lives if their own rights were pushed forward too loudly and too strongly. But he was not deterred.
He was a man of dignity; he was a man of tenacity; he was a man of eloquence; and he was a man of gentleness and of constant idealism. But the words "gentleness" and "idealism" don't quite describe what A. Philip Randolph was, because he was able to combine idealism with hard work and sweat.
He was a working man. His father was a tailor and a preacher. And he combined gentleness with kind of a brash courage in a time when it was not done. He stood up strongly, face to face, with four great Presidents: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy— not seeking publicity, not seeking a confrontation, but because he believed in a principle so deeply that he was not at all fearful or timid about a confrontation with the highest elected official of our country.
His struggle was not easy, but the victories he won were permanent, steps that seemed to be small. And one of the reasons for their permanence as building blocks for the future was that he did not leave behind him a battlefield of bitterness.
His own personal character assuaged the feelings of those who confronted him on the opposite side of an argument and lost. They accepted the judgment that was rendered when A. Philip Randolph won his important victories.
He was a man who studied Shakespeare-not to show that he was highly educated or erudite, not to learn how human beings can move like chameleons on and off the stage life with constantly changing principles and ideals and commitments, but he studied Shakespeare so that he could learn the constant truths of the human soul.
I found a passage from Shakespeare that I think might be appropriate, and I'd like to read it. It's just two lines. "Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, his honor and the greatness of his name shall be"—and a very strange but pertinent ending—"and shall make new nations."
"Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, his honor and the greatness of his name shall be and shall make new nations."
It would not be appropriate to take away from many others, some in this church, credit for the achievements of the last few years or decades. But I don't think there's any doubt that A. Philip Randolph contributed to the making of a new nation—not a perfect nation, not a nation worthy of maintaining the status quo, but a nation of struggle which has observed progress and which recognizes that progress still remains to be made because we live in a society even here in the United States where inequality and hatred, deprivation and hunger, racism, still exist.
But I think that A. Philip Randolph and his life exemplified one additional truth that I'd like to say. Institutions, governments set as goals material progress: opening up the West, the expansion of our Nation, increase in gross national product, achievements of which chambers of commerce can be proud in individual cities. Those kinds of evidence of progress are supported by a wide range of institutions and organizations that mutually benefit from them. But social progress-equality, liberty, freedom, justice—that kind of progress comes rarely from government as the initiator; it almost invariably comes from a courageous human being whose fellow workers might call him the Chief.
We have a great nation. It can be much greater if we never forget the life and the times and the constant presence in our lives of the Chief.