Cory Booker — Keynote: SXSW 3/10/17
AUDIO: Interactive Opening Speaker: Cory Booker — SXSW 2017
(2:10) I don’t know if you all heard it’s only been a couple months we’ve a new President — I know you know that. But as I was going to my Twitter feed this morning I saw -why I wanted to structure it this way — somebody Tweet out ‘is SXSW going political?’ I want to sort of have a conversation before we sit down and hopefully answer questions from anybody wants to ask about anything — but I don’t have a conversation you might not expect to hear from a someone who now is in the United States Senate.
I just want to say I have a conversation with everybody about the issue - the issue — the concept, the most powerful force in the universe. The force that has shaped and guided our country to the moment we are now. And that is love.
I am one of these people that really believes that we are all here today as a physical manifestation of a larger conspiracy of love.
That ordinary Americans who took extraordinary steps in seeing each other, in valuing each other, in sacrificing for each other, and struggling for each other and that the love of Americans have shown as it’s evolved ability to leap space and time, to leap obstacles to span differences. We are a nation that was not founded because we all look alike, spoke the same language or prayed alike.
And in fact we know we’ve had ugly divisions in our country fearsome conflicts but there has been a spirit that has still found a way to reach beyond that and to manifest a glorious triumphant love. One of my favorite moments in American history is when a president who could have at a time of division and separation in our country when he spoke to the nation — his inaugural address — where he could have a given into a dark vision of our country and it would’ve been true. He could have all of the accused to the people who were opposing him of some of the worst of human character. But he chose not to. He said these profound words with malice towards none and charity towards all.
It was Lincoln’s second inaugural address. But the moment that bit that inspires me is that he went afterward to a reception and there were tons of people obviously trying to get at the president and the historical accounts that I’ve read said he was being pulled this way and that the governor Rhode Island was trying to see him in all this, but he kept pressing to find someone who referred to as his friend, which in itself is amazing because these two men fought bitterly and angrily, over substantive issues of life or death and this friend that he was looking for was a black man who almost didn’t even get in because of the powerful, anguished lines of race in America at that time. But he was recognized and someone took this man and brought him in as a black man in the presidential reception after an inaugural address and Lincoln is pushing to find his friend and being pulled different ways but he’s looking for this black man, finds him and this black man regal in stature but humble in spirit, literally says to the president as is recounted please attend to your other guests. But Lincoln had a mission he wanted to know something, he wanted to know from this man what we all do when we get up and give speeches or talks “Hey how did I do?” You know he said I wanna know what my friend thought my speech.
Now this will be the last time these two men what would ever speak to each other, these will be the last time these in incredible historical figures would have a moment. And they looked at each other at at and I’m sure there was a pregnant pause as this black man named Frederick Douglass look at the president of United States and simply said mister president it was a sacred effort. a sacred effort.
I believe in many ways the hope of our nation actually does lie with many of our historical figures how they acted in times like this.
I’m not one these folks it wants to whitewash our American history and eliminate that the ugliness and their bigotry and the sexism and the hate that was prevalent in our history. But the power of our history is that despite that we seem to have chosen a harder path way of love, despite the hate and divisiveness of our days.
Look, our founding documents are saturated — unfortunately — are sceen with replete through them, these examples all those darker strains of human nature. Native Americans are referred to as savages, women aren’t referred to at all. Blacks are, you know Stokely Carmichael used to say, constitute I can only say three-fifths of the word (audience laughs), but if you look at the spirit of our founding documents literally go to the Declaration of Independence. I always say read the very end. What was the climactic appeal in the Declaration of Independence? It’s a declaration of interdependence. This understanding that scene in that wonderful African saying that if you wanna go faster go alone. But if you want to go far go together. It’s this idea that needs each other. And we have to make an unusual and extraordinary commitment to one another even though we don’t necessarily pray alike or look alike.
We have to make an unusual and extraordinary commitment to one another for this country to make it and our founders in this document this profound writings by Jefferson and with a declaration of interdependence he says at the end we must meet pledged to each other our lives our fortunes and that word again our sacred honor.
You know I think that this is a problematic use of words when Americans appeal to this idea that we should be a nation tolerance.
I think that’s a really problematic, if that is the aspirational ideal of our society.
Because it is a rejection of that larger goal that we have, a difficult goal which is to be a nation of love.
I tolerate cold (audience laughs). Okay — that’s not what we were called to do was to tolerate each other. We are called to love each other. Now patriotism — which is love of country — I think mandates a love one another.
We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to agree with each other, but ‘tolerance’ says I’m just gonna stomach your right to be different and if you disappear off the face of the earth, I’m no worse off, or no better off. But love says ‘I see you’ I recognize your dignity, I recognized your value, I recognize your worth, and I know it if we’re gonna make it, we have to find a way to exalted that truth within one another and find ways to connect to be together in a larger mission. A mission larger than solves tolerance build fences between people love rips them down. Tolerance crosses the street when someone else is coming, and love confronts and embraces. Tolerance says I don’t need you love says you are central to my well being. Tolerant says I don’t have to care about what happens to your child.
Love understands if your kid gets healthcare and education and thrives and becomes an artist or doctor or entrepreneur or an inventor — that I am so much better off. Therefore I am invested in who you are and what’s happening in your lives. Now that is this understanding that to me now more than ever so critical. Is knowing that we have an obligation to one another. Knowing that we need to pledge a deeper more sacred honor and what bothers me is why I am a big proponent and lover of technology and innovation, I am not a lover of the separations that are becoming easier and more convenient, were we can creating our own virtual bubble around our lives, where we literally are no longer seeing one another, or understanding our need for one another. Its becoming even more convenient to have confirmation bias and begin to believe, I am so right and you are so wrong. There is a lacking of that humility, that heroic humility that I talked about in that first story.
And not seeing each other creates a very dangerous reality.
I mean the brilliance of people like James Bevel and Dorothea Cotton who in in May of 1963 challenged Martin Luther King, these young innovators challenge Martin Luther King and said look what you’re doing here in Birmingham is not working we need to create — my words not theirs — but a virality to the media that we have.
We have to figure out a way to get the message out, so people see us and so instead they convince King to change its tactics and actually as Taylor Branch I think the chapter title is called “The Children’s Miracle” they convince Martin Luther King to let kids march against Bowl Connor and suddenly you had eight-year-olds and ten-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds and eighteen-year-olds marching against Bowl Connor and his dogs as fire hoses and the media before not paying attention suddenly swarms into Birmingham Alabama now people from Iowa to the Soviet Union are seeing on TV it running on front pages of newspapers the horrors going on by fellow Americans and we — who have reservoirs of love and strength and dignity and a heroic, courageous empathy reservoirs of courageous empathy that we don’t tap into.
Suddenly people are confronted with what was happening to their neighbors and they were so offended by it that they swarmed into Birmingham and within days segregation fell. The power was which mainly down our convenient bubbles and see each other and recognize that dignity and worth it see another suffering.
That is empowering. It helps us to tear down the walls of injustice when I was in my twenties I was a Yale Law student and I followed the call of that great American profit named Chris Rock (laughter) and he said why is often the most violent streets in many cities is named after the man that stood for non-violence and I moved on to Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark.
Now if you know Newark in the mid-nineties King Boulevard was a great testimony to Martin Luther King from our best high schools like parks high to great universities all on King Boulevard.
But the south end of that street was off the hook then I moved on to it and I first I just saw the problems and the challenges. Some might call it American carnage. It was violence and challenges and poverty and a crack house. I mean so much was going on but I’ll never forget the wisdom. I always say I got my BA from Stanford but my Ph.D. on the streets of Newark. Because there were tenant leaders it grabbed me by my scruff and woke me up and reminded me that the world you see outside of you it is always a reflection of what you have inside of you.
If you’re one of those people really see is darkness and despair and problems you can’t make a difference you can’t be a change agent. But if you’re one of those stubborn people every time you open your eyes you see hope, you see opportunity, you love — then you can elevate the world to that vision.
And one of the great leaders at that time was cutting Frank Hutchins he read the longest rent strike in Newark’s history back in the seventies — by the time I met him, he was an aging man slowing down — but he and I and other tenant leaders some of the best fights of my life work that neighborhood in Newark New Jersey the slum lord the buildings I would eventually what became public housing projects — and live there for eight years battling it out the slum lord was convicted in federal court for crimes. We were doing great things. It was such an affirming moment for me but I’ll never forget the early days sitting in the basement of a tenant meeting and having people go on and on and on.
I had all I needed for the complaint that we wanted the file but get the tenant meeting kept going all that everybody seems to want to get a microphone and talk and I was restless but looking at this zen master — this black elderly man to just would look at people and never looked impatient.
The love in his eyes spoke volumes and and I said to to to him later, as a man that was a little intended meaning why would we get we could cut it off he said no Cory, this is not just about a legal complaint it’s about the affirmation of dignity it’s about seeing people. It’s about tearing down walls giving people the opportunity who so much of this world ignores them and the reality TV experience every single day. Frank got older and then I became a city council person — then a Mayor, there he got sicker eventually hit a condition where he lost his eyesight I would come to see him, and I would say Hey Frank I’m Cory and he would sort of dismissed me and say “I see you” and then we would go on and he couldn’t see me — but he said it.
I couldn’t believe this heroic man who tens of thousands of Americans owe their housing or their hot water — this man’s champion — but it kills me that this great hero in America was poor.
I would take him out to to go to dinner and to go shopping and he would implore me, let’s go to the movies. And I would say: ‘Frank you can’t see man’ and he’d be like ‘no no I want to sit man, I want to hear the sound’ and I would take him to the movie and then eventually got older and older and he was my hero.
I passed the bar I did call my mom first a call Frank first — my hero. I watched him get older and eventually sick eventually the hospital eventually hospice.
And my ego, that thinks adulation might be a sign of greatness this guy challenge me to understand that service — not celebrity — that purpose, not popularity — that’s the greatness of life. I sat with him in his final days the day I showed up the hospital with the nurses told me this is going to be it he will die soon I walked in he could barely talk I sat with him I kissed him, I practically climb on the bed and just held this man, and that last visit he said only could get two things out only two things out. I walked in the room and I said “Hey Frank it’s Cory” he forced the words out he said ‘I see you.’ And then when I was leaving, I was leaving I kissed him again on the forehead and I said ‘Frank I love you’ and he said those words forced them out ‘I love you.’ I left an empty hospital room was empty hospice room — a dying man I walked out and he would soon die. And I was struggling to prepare for his funeral — I just thought about his last words to me ‘I see you’ — ‘I love you’ I see you I love you I see you I love you.
This is what we need we need this latest mentor great mentor my life I see you I mean what do you one of these people I love faith I’d love religion I’ve studied many of them but I the first person to say wait before you tell me about your religion first show it to me and how you treat other people.
Before you the passion of your faith, show it to me in your compassion for others.
But we Americans we share a civic gospel. we say words over and over Liberty and Justice for All.
We say it in songs, ideas we’ve written into our founding documents some of the highest principles of life — but they mean nothing but all the paper they’re written on his has no value — dust in time — the way they live in spite of people who embody that spirit and understand that we indeed now — more than ever — must pledge to each other our lives, and our fortunes and our sacred honor. We must give a sacred effort to cut through the defensiveness. To show a courageous empathy to leave the geographic ideal of neighborliness and be there for our neighbor that might exist on Martin Luther King Boulevard or on a Native American Reservation in poor Appalachian town, they are Americans.
We are Americans — and we must see each other because that is the beginning — the necessary ingredient — to the greatest force in our country right now — and our only salvation. And that’s to love one another. thank you.