Remarks for the U.S. Naturalization Ceremony at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia
The Honorable Paul Friedman, Presiding
January 9, 2007
What an honor and privilege it is for me to share this day with you! Thanks to my good friend Judge Friedman for extending this delightful invitation to me. Congratulations to all new citizens of the United States.You have taken a courageous step to ensure the future of your families in freedom and justice.
As I look at you today, I am mindful of my own heritage as one of the second generation in my family of European immigrants to these shores. I never met my grandparents. Two came from Ireland, two from Italy, all four in search of their own version of the American Dream. Their lives in this country were not easy; even now my mother recalls the prejudice her Italian parents encountered because they didn’t speak English very well. But they and their children, my parents, persisted in pursuit of their dreams in this nation.
And, so, here I am today, a university president, enjoying the legacy of their courage. At Trinity in Washington where I am president, we have many international students. Nearly 90% of our students are Black and Hispanic, and a substantial number have immediate roots in other nations. They come to Trinity because they know that education is important to help them gain economic security and personal satisfaction. I read their application essays, and each in her own way says the same thing, that she wants to earn a college degree to achieve El Sueno Americano, the American Dream.
Whenever I hear people speaking out against immigration, I think about the privileges I have enjoyed, and wonder where I would be today if my grandparents had run into a wall instead of welcoming shores. I am perplexed when I hear someone with an Irish or Italian or German or Polish last name demand an end to immigration, saying that we need to keep “those people” out. Is the memory of the second, third and fourth generations so short that we would deny our own immigrant roots, repress the possibility that someday the United States might have a President Rodriguez or Chief Justice Otumba or Senator Nguyen?
Last week we celebrated the election of Speaker Pelosi – Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, not only the highest ranking woman ever in the U.S. government, but also the highest-ranking Italian-American. (By the way, she is also a Trinity alumna.) Her achievement would not have been possible without the courageous voyage of her grandparents to this nation, and the enlightened welcome of that immigrant era.
President John F. Kennedy wrote in his essay A Nation of Immigrants that America is “‘a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers, people eager to build lives for themselves in a spacious society that did not restrict their freedom of choice and action’. The continuous immigration of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was’ central to the whole American faith’ It reminded every American, old and new, that change is the essence of life, and that American society is a process, not a conclusion'”
Today, you continue this process of building the “spacious” American society.
My fondest hope for you is that the promise of this moment will take root and flourish in the succeeding generations of your families who will be, all, rightfully, American citizens. In the largest sense, the oath you took today, while surely a great moment of personal satisfaction, is not really about you. Your citizenship is your legacy to your children and their families, and to the communities and nation they will inhabit and even lead in decades to come. Your citizenship today is their hope for a future lived in true justice, genuine freedom.
Freedom is the essence of our lives in the United States.Freedom is not an absolute state of being. Freedom is a precious value that human beings must replenish each day through exercising freedom’s rights and responsibilities.
65 years ago, on the brink of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech to Congress in which he famously spelled out the four great freedoms of human society:
“We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way’. The third is freedom from want’.. The fourth is freedom from fear’anywhere in the world.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Speech to Congress, January 6, 1941)
Nearly 7 decades later, we are still striving to ensure these freedoms not only here in this nation but everywhere in the world.
Perhaps the gravest danger we face right now is the repression of some freedoms because of a prevalent misunderstanding of what it takes to achieve freedom from fear. Freedom from fear does not mean surrender of individual rights and liberties to some Big Brother government. Freedom from fear does not mean provoking war against other nations. The best way to achieve freedom from fear is to use our rights and liberties vigorously, particularly the right to freedom of speech to advocate for justice and peace.
Citizenship does not require agreement. Indeed, one of your great obligations in protecting the liberties of citizenship is to exercise your right to freedom of speech frequently, even, perhaps most importantly, expressing opinions critical of government. In the United States, “We, the People” are the government. We elect various individuals to carry out our will, but we must never forget or surrender our right to self-governance. We, as the government, must be vocal in expressing our opinions in the public square, and we must not be afraid to disagree – with each other, with elected officials, with appointed officials, with legislatures and judges and even presidents and cabinets.
In the week just past, we have witnessed the effect of the voice of the people, and the great strength of the Constitution of the United States.As a result of the November elections, we had an orderly transfer of power from one political party to another in the Congress of the United States.Some of the new members of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate won their elections by a relative handful of votes. Very small margins of victory have determined the course of not only politics but even history in this nation – from the presidential election in the Year 2000 to the election of Senator Jim Webb in Virginia this past November, an election that turned the Senate majority from Republican to Democratic. The most precious responsibility you assume today in taking the oath of citizenship is the responsibility to vote. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that your vote doesn’t count – your vote can change the course of history.
The American Constitution is our rudder through history. Great citizens know it, revere it, protect it and use it well.
Last week we also witnessed the funeral of President Gerald Ford. In recalling how he became the president of the United States, we revisited yet another remarkable example of the wisdom and power of the U.S. Constitution. Gerald Ford was never elected to the two high offices he held, first vice president and then president. He was appointed vice president of the United States according to the terms set forth in the Constitution when the man he replaced, Spiro Agnew, had to resign over a scandal. Then, when the previously unthinkable happened, the president himself, President Nixon, resigned in disgrace, Gerald Ford became president according to the terms spelled out in the Constitution. What was most remarkable about that era in our history was how orderly this transfer of power was.
I remember the day that President Nixon resigned and left town, and Gerald Ford became the president. I was standing down on the Ellipse behind the White House with thousands of other citizens. It was very quiet, unlike the raucous anti-war demonstrations I had seen down there in the early 1970’s. The crowd on August 9, 1974 was solemn, orderly, determined – determined to be witnesses to the Constitutional process unfolding as the founders of this nation had determined it should two centuries previously. There were no tanks rolling on Pennsylvania Avenue, no battalions of soldiers marching up Constitution, not one shot was fired in this peaceful revolution in presidential leadership in a time of war abroad and grave domestic crisis. The only sound we heard were the blades of the presidential helicopter chopping the heavy summer air as President Nixon flew away in disgrace.
The American Constitutional process frees us from the fear of violent revolution in our nation by mapping out the processes for orderly transfers of power from president to president and Congress to Congress. This is one of the truly great benefits of your new citizenship.
Too many citizens of this earth live with another, more immediate, kind of fear, the fear of poverty and violence borne of the tragically unequal conditions of life. President Roosevelt listed freedom from want among the four great freedoms of human life, and yet human want has afflicted the lives of more women and children, more generations of desperate men than any terrorist cell – yes, even in this great nation.
You are now citizens of the greatest capitalist society the world has ever known – and yes, capitalism is the economic engine that will make it possible for you and your families to enjoy great prosperity and economic security here. But you are also now citizens of a society devoted to the idea of justice, a moral concept whose true meaning includes sharing what we have with those who do not have so much, so that all can enjoy the blessings of equality and freedom. No matter how far you rise up the ladder of American life, no matter how great and wealthy you may become, or no matter how modest your means at the end of the day, never forget to lift others up as you climb. We cannot create a Good Society if half of its children are left by the side of the road naked, hungry and suffering neglect. If we care for our neighbors in need, we will ensure a more successful, peaceful and just future for our nation.
Now, as a college president, I would be negligent if I did not also mention that one of the most effective ways to secure your freedom, to exercise your liberties well, to achieve justice is to continue your education each day. Education is essential to the health of our democracy and the achievement of economic security for each person and family. You, your children and grandchildren have access to the best educational opportunities in the world – seize those opportunities as part of the fulfillment of your American dream. In particular I urge you to attend to the education of your daughters – by encouraging the education of women you will ensure the education of future generations.
Celebrate your citizenship often. Cherish this land like your own mother. Without much expense you can travel frequently to the beautiful soft mountains of the Blue Ridge, trace old pathways in the Shenandoah Valley, stand on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and imagine the ancestral voyagers who once paddled the creeks and rivers of this great watershed. Take a weekend so that your children can stand in the old log cabins up at Valley Forge or tramp across the bitter fields of Gettsyburg and Antietam and learn about the hard struggles that forged their freedoms today. Stop to watch the eagles fly across the dam at Conowingo. Venture South to the birthplace of Martin Luther King in Atlanta, travel West through the pioneer lands where America ‘s vast frontier remains largely untamed in remote places, head North to Walden Pond to contemplate the wisdom of an American philosopher called Thoreau. Wherever you go, wear your citizenship proudly, but also take your heritage confidently. This is a land that weaves and knits and binds itself together in a broad cloth of threads of many colors and weights and textures. We are red, white and blue, yes – and we are green and purple and orange and yellow and fushia and teal, pink as the dawn and cerulean as the sky. America is all of us, not one greater than the other, but all of us pledged and entwined together to keep the fabric strong.
Let me leave you this morning with a reflection from a verse by the great African American poet Langston Hughes ( A New Wind A-Blowin’ ):
There’s a brand new wind a-blowin’ down that Lincoln road.
There’s a brand new hope a-growin’ down where freedom’s seeds are sowed.
There’s a new truth we’ll be knowin’ that will lift our heavy load,
When we find out what free men can really do.
There’s a brand new day a-comin’ for the land called U.S.A.
New tunes we’ll be a-strummin’ in our hearts by night and day.
As we march on we’ll be hummin’, how our troubles’ gone away,
‘Cause we’ve found out what free men [and women] can really do.
There’s a brand new wind a-blowin’ thru a land that’s proud and free.
Ev’rywhere there’s folks a-wakin’ to a truth that’s bound to be.
So let’s all pull together for that day of victory,
And we’ll show ’em what free men [people] can really do!
You will show them what free citizens can really do! Congratulations!