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Remarks by Ambassador Ron Kirk at the World Bank Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ambassador Ron Kirk, United States Trade Representative

Remarks at the World Bank Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Washington, DC
January 18, 2010

* As Prepared for Delivery *

“Thank you, Ian. Thanks also to Robert Zoellick for your leadership and service.

“It is quite fitting that we should honor and reflect on Dr. King’s legacy here at the headquarters of The World Bank.

“Because as First Lady Michelle Obama reminded us recently: ‘Dr. King was much more than a civil rights champion – he was a man who lived his entire life in service to others, speaking out against poverty, economic injustice and violence.’

“Dr. King said, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’

“Here at the World Bank your mission is to seek a ‘World Free of Poverty.’ So you have a pretty good answer to Dr. King’s question.

“Frankly, it’s always important to remember that expanding opportunity and pursuing social justice are the causes that called many of us to public service in the first place.

“And as we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy this year, the recent tragic events in Tucson remind us that we have not eradicated hatred or violence from society.

“We offer prayers and our thoughts are with the victims and their families. And we as a nation are also collectively soul-searching, seeking answers for the cause of such senseless and brutal crimes.

“To be sure, the President was clear in his remarks last week that ‘at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to the lay the blame for all that ails us at the feet of those who happen to think differently that we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.’

“As we try to cope with inexplicable evil, we should also remember the warning of Dr. King, who wrote in his famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail: ‘We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.’

“I want to take a few moments to reflect on the power of this letter that was written by hand, on borrowed paper, over many days in a solitary jail cell.

“At the time Dr. King was responding to leading clergy in Birmingham who privately recognized the injustices of segregation and professed sympathy for the cause of civil rights, but who said publicly that Dr. King was trying to move too far, too fast. They called King an extremist and were uncomfortable with his nonviolent tactics that provoked violent responses from authorities. They were not willing to disturb the peaceful status quo of segregation.

“Their criticisms were deeply disappointing to Dr. King, not only because he respected them as church leaders, but also because he saw how the failure of reasonable, moderate people to speak up left our national conversation bitter and divided. Those who should have been drum majors at the head of the march for justice were instead saying perhaps we should wait.

“But Dr. King carefully and compassionately rejected their criticisms, because he understood that the ‘appalling silence of good people’ enables purveyors of hatred and violence to operate with impunity. And he anticipated how it could lead to drastic – sometimes deadly – consequences.

“Reading those words today we are chastened by such a compelling condemnation of the status quo. We are reminded that we must always encourage good people to continue standing up and speaking out against hatred, evil and violence. And we must go farther by putting forward a positive message that evokes hope and progress, not anger or frustration.

“Former President Clinton once remarked that anger is not a governing philosophy. Anger does not create jobs, for example. But clearly the danger is that too much fear and anger on any side of a debate can drive reasonable people away from politics and public life all together.

“We can’t let that happen. We have to stay engaged. Because in the words of author Kurt Vonnegut: ‘There is no reason why good cannot triumph as often as evil. The triumph of anything is a matter of organization. If there are such things as angels, I hope that they are organized along the lines of the Mafia.’

“So today, as we continue to move forward with fierce urgency in pursuit of progress, we must redouble efforts to keep the tone of our public debate civil and high-minded. We must continue to conduct our business in a way that brings more people into the process and avoids any ‘appalling silence of the good.’ And most of all we must not lose faith in the fact that hard work pays off over time.

“Because in the words of Dr. King: ‘Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.’

“Our time is now. Thank you.”