Ninth Annual Martin Luther King Jr.
Drum Major Awards Breakfast

Remarks as prepared for delivery by Secretary Alphonso Jackson

Monday, January 15, 2007

Thank you, Reverend Dr. [Vernon] Shannon, for the kind introduction. It's a pleasure to be here with you this morning. Please extend my warmest thanks to Reverend Dr. [Rita] Colbert and Bishop [Warren] Brown for the strong leadership and spiritual direction they provide to this congregation and the DC community.

To the Sons of Varick Club members, its President Joe Leak, Vice President Willie Alstork and other officers, thank you for sponsoring this annual breakfast. The "radiant stars of love and brotherhood," which Dr. King spoke of, shine brightly over the Sons of Varick and this congregation. I greatly appreciate the invitation to be a part of this tremendous program.

I would like to give special thanks to the Children's Choir of John Wesley, and Director Joseph Smith. As a cabinet secretary, I've been speaking at events for some time now, and there are two rules I follow: Never speak after a religious leader, because they are great orators and will make you look bad in comparison, and never follow a group of talented young people, because they steal the show. It looks like I may be in trouble today! I thank all the young people in the choir for such a beautiful performance.

To the members of the community and congregation, thank you for welcoming me into your spiritual home. You set a great example for people of faith and for all Americans. On behalf of the President, I would like to thank you for your many good works.

It was nearly 40 years ago when Dr. King delivered his Drum Major Instinct speech, which provides the significance for the awards given today. On that day, he said at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, "When the church is true to its nature, it says, ‘whosoever will, let him come.'" I can see that welcoming spirit and goodness among you today.

It is also this same speech that Dr. King advised, "Be first in love. Be first in moral excellence. Be first in generosity."

These words resonate now as strongly as they did in 1968, and they have just as much relevance. I know I don't have to tell you - the members of this congregation -about being first and leading the way. For more than 150 years, this church and its members have been a beacon of hope far beyond this building and long after the last hymn is sung on Sunday.

I am pleased to join you in coming together today in celebration of the life of a true American hero: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Today, we remember that Dr. King's actions helped America acknowledge its shameful past, and opened a door for a brighter future. We immerse ourselves in his teachings and in the principles that he preached, and that he lived.

Dr. King's famous utterance that everyone can serve, and the example he set in doing so, has allowed for community improvement and volunteerism to become a vital part of this national observance. Let us engage in service today. Let us make this holiday, as they say, "not a day off, but a day on." Let us reflect upon our past service and how we can better serve our community tomorrow.

I know that the John Wesley church is an active participant in the revitalization of the DC community. I have heard of your plans to convert a church parking lot into condos to provide affordable housing to those who need it, which is terrific. And your support of the New Columbia Land Trust is allowing first-time homebuyers the chance to experience the joys of homeownership and the ability to achieve the American dream.

I visited a church in Queens a few months ago, the Greater Allen Cathedral. And their pastor, the Honorable Reverend Dr. Floyd Flake, said after his weekly remarks to always remember to save 10% for themselves on top of their weekly tithe. He says to save it for a downpayment on a home. Now, I promise you I never asked him to say that. But it's darned good advice.

Owning a home is the surest path we have toward self-sufficiency. If more black Americans put their money toward homes and other lasting assets, we would see a renaissance among our brothers and sisters in the black community. It's funny how hopeful and optimistic you become when you're fixing a roof, adding on to a family room, or cashing out equity for a small business.

Homeownership might not be a good idea in every situation. But as I travel throughout the country, I have seen its positive effects. I see families who own their own homes tend to have greater stability; they tend to be more involved in their neighborhoods and churches. And their children tend to do better in school.

You have seen the importance of housing in the community. You have seen that having a safe, affordable place to live frees you up to help those who don't. You know that by not having to worry about this month's rent check, you're free to help others. That is why housing is a central part of your works.

This kind of work provides lasting hope to those who receive, and also to those who give. It's a wonderful service to providing to the community. Dr. King would have been proud.

Like many black Americans, I was influenced by Dr. King on a very personal level.

I was only 17-years-old, and a freshman at Lincoln University, when Dr. King's top aide asked me to help with a voter registration drive in Alabama.

On March 7, 1965, I was on the Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday. There were 600 of us on the bridge, and 200 troopers tried to break us up. They used whips and cattle prods, tear gas and dogs. I was one of 50 protestors who got hurt. A dog sank his teeth into my left leg.

During the Civil Rights movement in this country, I learned about the best and the worst of humanity. And I learned the strong moral values from those great men and women - including my brothers and sisters of a lighter hue - who helped open doors for our people.

Dr. King and the other great leaders knew the values they stood for. They knew those values would be just empty ideals unless somebody was willing to suffer for them. These leaders rose to prominence through hard work and a sense of purpose, and they got results because their cause was just.

Today, we have a new generation of problems: the breakdown of families, and too many of our young black men in prison. Solutions to these problems will not come easy. But we will, as he said, "not wallow in the valley of despair."

I believe that people of faith, with a commitment to service, can help lead the charge to a brighter future for us all.

My father always said, "You may land on your back, but if you can look up, you can get up." Dr. King shared this same mentality.

Four decades after Dr. King's death, his words and his actions inspire us still. And I can say, without doubt, that his commitment to equal opportunity endures at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In many ways, his dreams for this nation are deeply woven into the Department's history and our mission.

Just one week after Dr. King's assassination, Congress passed the landmark Fair Housing Act, which continues to be one of the cornerstones of our shared dream. Today, our programs further the goals of Dr. King by providing safe, decent, and affordable housing free from discrimination.

In addition to Fair Housing, I also want to share with you a HUD program that works to help churches like this one continue its mission. HUD has awarded $258 million dollars to faith-based organizations last year, and there are more funds to come. No other federal agency comes close to the percentage of competitive grants that we distribute to faith-based groups.

Our message to faith-based groups has been consistent and clear: We appreciate you. We support you. And we want you to have the means to do what you do best.

Disappointingly, sometimes groups do not apply for grants. The applications may be too complicated or confusing. We recognize the problem. We want to change it, and we are making progress.

Here's how: HUD's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is training grass-roots organizations about the grant-writing process. Over the last three years, we've taught more than 30,000 people how to compete for public and private grant dollars.

These are funds you could use to continue the good work and service that is synonymous with the John Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church.

Today, as hundreds of thousands of Americans gather to participate in service projects in their communities, I hope that many members of this congregation will join their ranks.

The Apostle James tells us, "Be doers of the Word, and not hearers only." Let us on this day be reminded that it is our duty to work together with our neighbors to make a positive contribution.

Like the beautiful Victory Skylight above us, which serves as a physical reminder every day of this congregation's triumph over a disastrous fire, let us be reminded every year with the coming of this special day, our triumph over adversity and our commitment to serve. Let us also keep those lessons of Dr. King close to our hearts. And let us remember to strive to be first in those things in life which truly matter most-first in love, in moral excellence, and in generosity.

Thank you. May God bless you for your kindness.

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