John F. Kerry photo

Remarks to the 124th Annual Session of the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans

September 09, 2004

Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.

Thank you Reverend Shaw for that gracious introduction and thank you all for giving me this opportunity to speak to this great convention. I opened with a stanza from "Amazing Grace." It was my father's favorite hymn and probably many of yours, too. And I know that in the next seven weeks, as we seek the America of our dreams, we will need every voice and every vote in this room and all across this broad land to bring this election home. And I know, as you do, that we cannot finish that journey and reach the mountaintop without the blessings of amazing grace.

So many of you know the story of how an English slave trader named John Newton was inspired to write that hymn as his ship was battered and tossed in the midst of a violent storm while he was on a slave trading voyage. It was then and there that he decided to give his life to God. When he returned home, he became a minister and an abolitionist. His life shows us that faith can calm troubled waters and that amazing grace will always bring us home.

The National Baptist Convention has lived that lived that truth throughout your history. In your individual churches and as a collective body, as you quietly go about your mission everyday -- feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and nourishing the soul of our nation, you are turning faith into deeds and making a difference in the lives of millions of Americans. Some people want to take credit for the faith-based service that you've been doing for years. They want to turn it into a political issue. But we know that you've been working in partnership with government and community-based organizations for years to bring hope to communities across our country. And on this eve of the third anniversary of September the 11th, 2001, I want to offer a special thanks to Rev. Shaw and the entire membership of the National Baptist Convention for your amazing deeds in the aftermath of that tragedy. I especially thank you for your contribution to the families of the Vulcan Society firefighters of New York who, on September 11th, gave their lives so that others might live.

Your dedication and your service live out the teaching of the Scripture: "It is not enough, my brother, to say you have faith, when there are no deeds...Faith without works is dead." As you know, my friends, we are taught to walk by faith not by sight.

And when we look around us – when we look around neighborhoods and towns and cities all across this country, we see faith to be lived out, and so many deeds to be done.

As it's said, faith is the substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen. [Hebrews 11:1] And we all know, you can't separate faith from substance.

We see jobs to be created. We see families to house. We see violence to stop. We see children to teach – and children to care for. We see too many people without health care and too many people of color suffering and dying from diseases like AIDS and cancer and diabetes.

We look at what is happening in America today and forget to ask: Where are the deeds? Where is the substance in our faith?

Fifty years ago, with the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education, this nation had a great moment of conscience. A moment when we finally acknowledged God's truth that we are each made in His image and likeness – that separate but equal is not just unequal – but immoral.

I will never forget the lessons I learned from the Reverend John Walker, the first African-American teacher at my high school. He taught me that the real gift of the civil rights movement was not progress for African Americans because of the benevolence of white Americans, but progress for all Americans because of the courageous efforts of a multi-racial coalition of conscience -- led by Black ministers and white ministers, young and old, South and North -- countless unsung heroes determined to bring about a better day.

In the hardest passages of the long march for civil rights -- amid lynchings and beatings and unyielding discrimination, the stalwart foot soldiers of justice did not look around and say, as we have heard so often from Washington these days, that we've turned the corner or that the job was getting done or that this was the best that we could do. Like us, they were a generation of optimists. They believed that America's best days lay ahead...that America could always do better. Against all odds, they saw a new dawn of liberty. They had a dream of a more perfect union – a dream of one America.

But that dream – our dream – is dim and denied in the Washington of today. 140 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it is time to again emancipate this land, to live up to our ideals; it is time for a new moment of conscience in America.

The fact is, the wrong choices of the Bush Administration – reduced taxes for the few and reduced opportunities for the middle class and those struggling to join it – are taking us back to two Americas -- separate and unequal. Our cities and communities are being torn apart by forces just as divisive and destructive as Jim Crow – crumbling schools robbing our children of their potential...rising poverty...rising crime, drugs and violence. I say again: Where are the deeds? Where is the substance in our faith?

Four years ago, George Bush came to office calling himself a "compassionate conservative." Well, in the story of the Good Samaritan we are told of two men who pass by or cross to the other side of the street when they come upon a robbed and beaten man. They felt compassion, but there were no deeds. Then the Good Samaritan gave both his heart and his help. [Luke 10]

It is clear: For four years, George W. Bush may have talked about compassion, but he's walked right by. He's seen people in need, but he's crossed over to the other side of the street.

As I have traveled this land, I've thought a lot about why America is heading in the wrong direction. Lost jobs, health care costs through the roof, the surplus gone, our alliances shredded, our influence challenged.

Well, as the president likes to say, there's nothing complicated about it. It all comes down to one letter -- W. So the next time you hear George W. Bush, remember the W stands for wrong. Wrong choices for Americans, and the wrong direction for America. This election all comes down to one decision: Do we want four more years of wrong choices for our country, or do we want to move America in a new direction?

Of all George Bush's wrong choices, the most catastrophic one is the mess he's made in Iraq. It's not that I would have done one thing differently in Iraq, I would have done almost everything differently. It was wrong to rush to war without a plan to win the peace. It was wrong not to build a strong international coalition of our allies.

And because we went it alone, we are bearing the burden and paying almost any price almost alone. Almost all the casualties are the sons and daughters of America. And 90 percent of the costs are being met by Americans – the total so far: $200 billion and rising every day. That's $200 billion we're not investing in health care and education That's $200 billion we're not investing to make sure no child is left behind. That's $200 billion we're not investing in incentives to create and keep good jobs in the United States of America. That's $200 billion we're not investing in homeland security to keep cops on the street, to protect our airports, our subways, our bridges and tunnels. That's W. Wrong choices, wrong direction, wrong leadership for America.

At that convention in New York last week, the Bush Administration actually said that outsourcing jobs is good for this nation. That shouldn't be a surprise because that's what they've done for four years, and, if they have the chance, that's what they will do for four more years. In the last three years, America has lost 1.6 million jobs. And just this week, a report showed that we've replaced those good jobs with low wage jobs – ones that pay an average of $9,000 less. A lot of them are part-time or temporary and don't provide any health care or benefits. And African-American unemployment is nearly 10 percent – double the rate for whites. That's more than a twenty-five percent increase since George Bush took office.

My friends, the promise of a better America is not being met when nearly one in three African American children are living in poverty or when half the black men in New York City are out of work. Here in Louisiana, the poverty rate is more than 20 percent – the highest in the nation. Is that compassionate? No.

For every complex problem there's a simple answer. And it's almost always wrong.

That's W. Wrong choices, wrong direction, wrong leadership for America.

As President, I will set a new direction. We're going to close the tax loopholes that reward companies for shipping jobs overseas. Instead, we're going to use common sense. We're going to reward companies that create and keep good jobs here in America.

At that convention in New York last week, George Bush actually promised the American people that after four years of failure, he now had a plan to get health care costs under control. Well, we only had to wait twenty-four hours to find out what he meant. The day after he spoke, he raised Medicare premiums by 17 percent -- the biggest increase in Medicare premiums in the history of the program.

Under the Bush Administration, 5 million Americans have lost their health insurance, including 400,000 African Americans. People of color are significantly more likely to suffer diseases like cancer and asthma and diabetes and AIDS. And yet nearly 60 percent of Hispanics and 43 percent of African Americans went without health coverage for all or part of the last two years. Is that compassionate?

George W. Bush believes when it comes to health care, the big drug companies come first, the insurance companies come second, and you come last. Well, that's W. Wrong choices, wrong direction, wrong leadership for America.

As President, I will set a new direction. I'm going to put you first. Our plan will take on the waste and greed in the health care system and save the average family up to $1,000 a year on their premiums. Our plan will help small businesses deal with the most expensive cases. Our plan will cover all children – automatically -- day one. Go to school, you're covered. Go to day care, you're enrolled. Every child in America will be covered. It's a long time overdue. When I am president, America will stop being the only advanced nation in the world which fails to understand that health care is not a privilege for the wealthy, the connected, and the elected, it is a right for all Americans.

At that convention in New York last week, George Bush said that he actually had a new idea. And you know what it was? The bad, old idea of privatizing social security -- and cutting your benefits. That's W. Wrong choices, wrong direction, wrong leadership for America. As President, I will set a new direction.

Let me say it plainly: I will not privatize Social Security. I will not cut benefits. I will not raise the retirement age. Because when you've worked for a lifetime, America owes you what you've earned.

At that convention in New York last week, George Bush actually talked about demanding accountability from everybody in education -- except his own administration. We know that you can't really get the job done in our classrooms when too many children, especially children of color, are forced to attend overcrowded and crumbling schools and are being taught by overworked and underpaid teachers. The promise of a better America is not being met when only 50 percent of African Americans are finishing high school and only 18 percent are graduating college. The promise of a better America is not being met, when, fifty years after Brown, in too many parts of our country we still have two school systems – separate and unequal.

That's W. Wrong choices, wrong direction, wrong leadership for America.

As President, I will set a new direction. We know the answer to closing the achievement gap is both higher expectations and greater resources. You cannot promise to leave no child behind and then leave the money behind. John Edwards and I have a plan to invest in our future, provide the needed funding and put a good teacher in every classroom – so that all our children will have the chance to develop their God-given potential.

You know, I used to be a prosecutor. I sent criminals to jail for murder and rape for the rest of their lives. But I also spent a lot of time talking to kids in trouble. There wasn't one of those kids I met who didn't come from a place of neglect, a background of abuse, poverty or violence. They are where they are because adults weren't able – or just weren't doing – what they should have been. We can't be a nation that abandons our children. Our promise will never be met until we stop being a nation content to spend $50,000 a year to keep a young person in prison for the rest of their life, when we could invest $10,000 to give them Head Start, Early Start, Smart Start, the best possible start in life.

Fifty years after the Brown decision, we are also reminded that now, more than ever, we need a Supreme Court that will protect our hard won victories.

It was just four short years ago that the Court – by one vote – decided the outcome of the race for president. It was less than a year ago that the Court – by one vote – decided the fate of affirmative action. One vote can make the difference for millions of Americans, and over the next four years the President of the United States will appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices.

George W. Bush has said that Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are the kind of judges he will put on the Supreme Court. Make no mistake – justices like them are out of the mainstream, and we don't need more of them on the Court. But that's W. Wrong choices, wrong direction, wrong leadership for America.

We have fought too hard and come too far to let George W. Bush roll back generations of progress. John Edwards and I know that the whole future of civil rights and affirmative action may hinge on a single Supreme Court vote.

And that bring me to another fundamental choice in this election: The other side says that a million African American votes not counted, continuing acts of voter suppression and the most tainted election in American history is the best that we can do. That's W. That's wrong. And we're not going to let it happen again. This time, we will fight to make sure every vote is counted and every vote counts. And we are already on the ground in Florida and elsewhere to make sure that nothing stands in the way.

We have many deeds to do here at home. But to keep the faith, we also have to set a new direction for America's leadership in the world. The U.S. and the UN Security Council now face a testing moment of truth – they must decide whether to take action to halt the killing in Darfur or remain idle in the face of the second African genocide in 10 years. If I were president, I would act now. As I've said for months, I would not sit idly by. We simply cannot accept another Rwanda. The United States should ensure the immediate deployment of an effective international force to disarm militia, protect civilians, and facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance in Darfur. The Sudanese government has thus far rejected such force. The US should lead the United Nations to impose tough sanctions now and make plain, we will not accept Khartoum continuing to block its deployment. And the President should immediately appoint an American Ambassador to the African Union, as we have long had an Ambassador to the European Union. The United States should not treat Africa as a second-class continent.

I also know that George Bush has asked the question, "Does the Democratic Party take African American voters for granted?" Well, here is my answer. The Book of Matthew reminds us, "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing." [Matthew 7:15]. The president who in the last four years couldn't even find time to meet with NAACP... the Black Caucus ... or the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The president who turns away from African American needs...who scorns economic justice and affirmative action...who traffics in the politics of division – and then claims he is a friend of Black America can not conceal his identity no matter what clothes he wears. And here is the other part of my answer: We will march with you every step of the way to full equality for all Americans. This November we're going to have a new march on Washington to bring your voice and our concerns right to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I'm ready to march with you. Will you march with me?

Together, we can close the gaps of inequality that impede the progress of our nation. Together, we can stop being what W.E.B. DuBois called, "a nation within a nation," and what John Edwards and I have called two Americas. Some have questioned this idea. But, Mr. President, I ask you to spend time with struggling families in the hills of Appalachia ... or in public housing in Detroit ... or in the barrios of East LA and then tell me our journey to build one America is finished. Our job, between now and November is to end the division between the fortunate America and the forgotten America. We must come to together to build one America.

On issue after issue, the other side has been trying to muddy the waters to keep you from seeing the real differences and the real choices in this election. The Bible tells us that we must sometimes see through a glass darkly. But on every issue, from Iraq to health care, from jobs to education to America's role in the world, the choice is clear. If you believe that this country is heading in the right direction, you should support George Bush. But if you believe a vote for W is a vote for the wrong choices, wrong direction, and the wrong leadership for America, then join with us. If you believe we need good jobs, health care for all, energy independence, and a new direction in Iraq, then I ask you to stand with us for an America that's stronger at home and respected in the world.

My friends, this is the most important election of our lifetime. Everything is on the line: our jobs, our health care, our role in the world, the character of our country – the Supreme Court of the United States. And while you have heard this many times before, we all know that the black community can help lead the way. We can't afford to take any vote for granted – and we won't. We can't afford to sit this one out or leave it up to our neighbor – and we won't.

We have 54 days left until the election. The clock is ticking. Together, we can make the right choices. We can come together. We can fulfill the promise of a better America. There are those who want to divide us into red states and blue states. Not me. I want to unite us as one America – red, white and blue. With your help, we will set a new direction for America.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

John F. Kerry, Remarks to the 124th Annual Session of the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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