MLK Scholarship Breakfast

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) delivered remarks at the 20th Annual MLK Holiday Scholarship Breakfast. The breakfast was hosted by Josh and Maria Cribbs and chaired by Robbin Hudson. Scholarships for students and ‘In the Footsteps of Dr. King” Awards were presented to community members working to make the Greater Cleveland Community a better place to live and work.

Brown’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, can be found below.

My Christmas gift to Connie this year was a surprise trip to Nashville – we drove down, just the two of us, the first weekend after New Year’s.

We listened to music, we went to the Johnny Cash museum, and we had lunch at the restaurant “Woolworth on 5th”. The original Woolworth’s opened in 1913 as a “five and dime”, and added its lunch counter in 1925.

Of course, it was only white patrons who could sit there.

It was at that lunch counter in February 1960 that a group of students launched the Nashville sit-in movement, to right one of segregation’s innumerable injustices.

John Lewis was arrested for the first time – the first of nearly 50 arrests – sitting at that counter, on February 27th.

At the new Woolworth’s, they have a restaurant and counter, and you can go upstairs, and sit on the actual stools where John Lewis and Dr. King sat, during later sit-ins.

It’s exciting to see this kind of commemoration, that’s more than just a plaque on a building – it’s a living, interactive memorial to some of the most courageous people in our country’s history.

John Lewis continues to show that courage today as he battles for his health against cancer. Of course we send him our prayers and thoughts throughout that fight.

The replica of that Woolworth’s counter is a reminder that the struggles and successes of the Civil Rights Movement that Dr. King led are not just stories for the history books.

We learn the history, yes – and we honor it best not by romanticizing the past, but through action.

Through living the lessons of Dr. King to build and support movements for change.

And so often it’s young people who lead those movements. Look at our history – it’s pretty clear that young people have never been very good at quietly accepting the hand they’ve been dealt.

Those sit-ins weren’t led by people my age – they weren’t led by politicians or businessmen. They were led by students at HBCUs. John Lewis was arrested that first time six days after his 20th birthday. Diane Nash was a 22-year old student at Fisk.

And little has changed today.

The data has made it clear – the current generation is made up of some of the most civically-engaged, active young people we’ve seen in a long time.

Look around: 

Look at who founded Black Lives Matter – young Black women.

Look at Danielle Sydnor, leading the city’s oldest civil rights organization.

Look at the work Quentin James and Stefanie Brown James are doing.

I had the privilege of meeting Mr. James and Ms. James last August and speaking at one of their events, called Black Campaign School, where they bring in experts and train potential candidates and staff on how to run for office and be public servants.

When I looked around that training last summer, at so many young people of color running for office and leading, I saw our state’s future – and I saw the future of the movement that Dr. King started long before most of those young activists were born.

Now, I know that the new generation of Black leaders has probably heard enough from older white guys – I’m not going to try to tell you how to run the movements we need for change.

But what I do know is how important your work is.

We know what we’re up against.

It’s the blatant racism of this president’s rhetoric, and the more subtle, but no less insidious, work going on at his agencies.

It’s Betsy DeVos rolling back school discipline policies meant to tear down the school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s the housing and banking regulators trying to tear down hard-fought civil rights and fair housing protections.

It’s a Department of Labor and a federal bench filling up with corporate lawyers who take away workers’ rights.

And it’s the deliberate dismantling of voting rights here in Ohio, and all across this country.

We’re talking about the most fundamental right in our democracy – the right Dr. King marched for. The right John Lewis was beaten for. The right that martyrs like the Reverend George Lee and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Reverend James Reeb died for.

And we know why some politicians want to take it away – they’re afraid. Afraid that if every person who wanted to vote, could vote, then justice might finally “roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We know that if every person who wanted to vote, could vote, Stacy Abrams would be governor of Georgia right now.

I’ve spoken at this breakfast many times, but this moment is unlike any other – tomorrow we will go back to the Senate to begin the third impeachment trial of a sitting president in American history. 

I don’t know how I will vote at the end of the trial – our jobs are to be impartial jurors, to listen to the evidence, and to put country above party.

But I do know two things:

This president did things Richard Nixon never did – he put his own personal political campaign ahead of the country he’s supposed to lead, and he tried to bribe a foreign government.

And I know that if Barack Obama had done what this president did, this conversation would look very different. Can you imagine if our country’s first Black president stood accused of the articles of impeachment handed down in December?

I guarantee you there would be no talk of looking the other way, or letting him off with a slap on the wrist.

It’s a reminder that our challenges remain vast.

But looking around that room last August at the Black Campaign School, I had faith.

And looking at the leaders taking the stage today, and the students at Morehouse and Spelman, who will be the leaders of tomorrow, I have hope.

Dr. King taught us that “progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.”

It rolls in because we push and we strive and we fight. We challenge the status quo.

We take the torch that was passed to us by Dr. King and John Lewis and Diane Nash and so many others in this fight for justice, we carry it as long as we can, and then we pass it to the next generation, who will bring us a little closer to the just and equal society we’re all striving to create.