Tuesday, April 22, 2008


4/21/08, As prepared for delivery on the first day of the Time for Action Tour:
Selma, Alabama (9:00 A.M. CDT):

Thank you. Forty-three years ago, an army of more than five hundred marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; an army that brought with them no weapons, which intended no destruction; that sought to conquer no people or land. At the head of the column, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, tie and tan raincoat, marched a twenty-five year old son of Alabama sharecroppers, John Lewis. They had planned to march from Selma to Montgomery, but they knew they would never reach there. They had been warned they would be met with force, and at the crest of the bridge, they were. Until then, they had marched in silence, with dignity and resolve, men, women, children and old people. All was quiet, even the angry crowd that watched the marchers. But everything was alive with apprehension, with the expectation that something momentous and terrible was imminent.

On the other side of the bridge, row upon row of state troopers in blue uniforms and white helmets, many on horseback, prepared to charge and stop with violence the peaceful army, intent only on conquering injustice. John Lewis took the first blow, a baton thrust to the stomach that shoved him back on the marchers behind him. He took the second blow, too, a hard swung club to his head, leaving a permanent scar where it struck. Blood poured from the wound, darkening his raincoat. He tried to struggle to his feet, and then collapsed unconscious, his skull fractured.

That evening, millions of Americans watched in stunned silence as ABC News broadcast the clash of might against right. They watched brave John Lewis fall. They watched the marchers -- peaceful, purposeful, loving, kneeling in humble resistance -- scattered and overrun by the troopers, who struck them with clubs and whips, chased them as they fled, trampled them beneath their horses' hooves. They watched old men and women fall. They saw dignified people claiming only their constitutional rights; affirming the promise of the Declaration of Independence without anger, malice or the least threat of violence, whipped and clubbed for their patriotism. They watched, and were ashamed of their country. And they knew that the people who had tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge weren't a mob; they weren't a threat; they weren't revolutionaries. They were people who believed in America; in the promise of America. And they believed in a better America. They were patriots; the best kind of patriots.
The beaten and dispersed army on Edmund Pettus Bridge had conquered something after all -- the indifference of too many Americans to their courageous struggle for the basic rights of American citizenship.

"When I care about something," John Lewis wrote, "I'm prepared to take the long, hard road." I've seen courage in action on many occasions in my life, but none any greater or used for any better purpose than the courage shown by John Lewis and the good people who marched for justice with him. All his life, John Lewis has believed in Dr. King's concept of the "beloved community;" a country "not hateful, not violent, not uncaring . . . not separated, not polarized, not adversarial."

In America all things are possible, even a civilization as great as the one envisioned by Dr. King and John Lewis. But we are practical people, and most of us are honest, and we know we have a ways to go. This week, I will be traveling to places in America that aren't enjoying the prosperity many other parts of America enjoy, but where people are walking a long, hard road to make sure that their children will know the opportunities that other American children possess. They are places that for too long suffered too many disadvantages, but where people of good character and stout hearts believe in the possibility of making the future better than the past, the essence of the American Dream.

I want to discuss with them how they are working hard to make a better future for their communities and their country. I am going to listen to and learn from them about what government is doing to help their efforts and what it does to hinder them. I'm not going to tell anybody about how government can make their choices for them, but how we can help grow our economy so that people have better choices to make for themselves. I'm going to share some of my ideas for making our schools better, and how to help all parts of America have access to the astonishing improvements in education made possible by the information revolution, and the economic opportunities they bring. I'm going to talk about the great potential of America's community colleges to help people learn new skills that will help them find secure jobs in the global economy. I want them to know, that as we begin to address the security and environmental threats caused by our dependence on f oreign oil, I'm dedicated to making sure our efforts to start a green technology revolution -- which could be as transformative as the information revolution -- produces prosperity throughout this country.

There must be no forgotten places in America, whether they have been ignored for long years by the sins of indifference and injustice, or have been left behind as the world grew smaller and more economically interdependent. In America, we have always believed that if the day was a disappointment, we would win tomorrow. That's what John Lewis believed when he marched across this bridge. That's what he still believes; what he still fights to achieve: a better country than the one he inherited.

My friends, Americans change things. We always have. We don't hide from problems or mistakes or history. We change things and we make history. Hope in America is not based in delusion, but in the faith that everything is possible in America. The time for pandering and false promises is over. It is time for action. It is time for change; the right kind of change; change that trusts in the strength of free people and free markets; change that doesn't return to policies that empower government to make our choices for us, but that works to ensure we have choices to make for ourselves. For we have always trusted Americans to build from the choices they make for themselves, a safer, stronger and more prosperous country than the one they inherited.
I have always believed in this country, in a good America, a great America. But I have always believed we can build a better America. I am here because it is a place where great Americans once fought to do just that, and I'm going to places where they are still fighting for change; to make us a better country. I am going to meet and learn from patriots.

Thank you.

Thomasville, Alabama (2:00 P.M. CDT):

Thank you. I'm very pleased to be here. I began today with a visit to Gee's Bend. Forty-six years ago the ferry from Gee's Bend to Camden was discontinued, further isolating the community from the rest of Wilcox County and modernity, and causing a lot of suffering there. They are proud people in Gee's Bend, and revere their old traditions. But change and progress is not something they fear. Camden shut down the service to stop change; to stop the people of Gee's Bend from answering Dr. King's call and coming to Camden to demonstrate for their civil rights. It didn't work. They marched -- some of them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge; they demonstrated; many were jailed; they voted and they helped change Alabama and America. We've come a long way since then. The old hatred and injustice that kept people in a state of second class citizenship might still live in some hard hearts in our country, but it is no longer the author of our laws. We're a bette r country than we were then. But it is no slight to the people of Gee's Bend or elsewhere to recognize we still have a ways to go; there are still things that must change in this country. There are still places that haven't shared in the opportunities enjoyed elsewhere in our country; places that have long been ignored or are losing ground as the global economy forces change faster than many ever expected. For the people in those places, the time for talking about change is over. It's time for action.

That's why I am so pleased to come to Thomasville and Alabama Southern Community College, where you have made impressive gains attracting investment, improving education and job opportunities, and building a community that will not be denied its fair share of the American Dream -- building a better life for you and your children. One of the great success stories in America are our community colleges that are doing so much to help Americans adapt to our always changing economy. I'm a great believer in using community colleges to help young Americans acquire the skills that will set them on the road to a good and purposeful life, and help workers who have lost a job that's never coming back find a job that won't go away. Community colleges can also serve to effectively train and certify teachers, who might remain in the area where they were educated.

Your college illustrates why I am so convinced that community colleges are indispensable to our future prosperity, particularly your dual enrollment program with Thomasville High School, where the students attend classes and earn credits at Alabama Southern, use the resources here, shorten the time and increase the likelihood that they will receive a college degree. The City of Thomasville plays a critical role in ensuring the program's success by offering scholarships to qualified students. It is an excellent example of a community working together to make the best use of existing resources to improve education, which, in turn, will attract new business investment because of the skills and reliability of your labor force. I commend you for it, and appreciate very much your willingness to meet with me. I came to Thomasville to understand the things you have done to improve your opportunities, and how they might serve people in other communities.

I also wanted to share a few ideas with you for improving the quality of public education in many American communities. The information revolution that has transformed the world's economy has also greatly enhanced the value of education to any American's personal success. At the same time -- and this is one of the most disturbing facts of our society today -- the quality of elementary and secondary education has declined. As a newspaper columnist put it the other day, "for the first time in the nation's history, workers retiring from the labor force are better educated than the one's coming in." That is absolutely unacceptable in a country as decent and prosperous as ours. And it is long past time we did something about it.

In America, we are blessed with the right to do and think for ourselves. But freedom confers responsibilities as well as rights, and among the most important of these is to make of our time and our opportunities better opportunities for those who follow us. Every preceding generation of Americans has managed to do this. We must do the work history has assigned us to ensure the lasting success of our country. And nothing is more important to that end than educating our children.

We need great teachers to educate our children. After our parents, few people influence our early life as profoundly as teachers. Theirs is an underpaid profession, dedicated to the service of others, which offers little in the way of the rewards that much of popular culture encourages us to crave -- wealth and celebrity. But though it might lack much in the way of creature comforts and fame, teaching offers a reward far more valuable: the profound satisfaction that comes from knowing you have made a difference for the better in someone else's life. Good teachers occupy a place in our memory that accords them a reverence we give few others. They not only are essential in the classroom, but very often play important roles in the life of small towns, serving as coaches, community volunteers, church leaders. And good teachers ought to be rewarded for merit and performance and not solely for the years they have spent in the profession.

Rural areas often struggle to attract young highly qualified and motivated new teachers. At the same time, we make it very difficult for Americans with exceptional skills for teaching to enter the field of education through non-traditional means. These are often people who would like nothing better than to take advantage of the quiet beauty and traditional values that are the foundation of rural America. But the path to teaching is often made up of more barriers than gateways. You can be a Nobel Laureate and not qualify to teach in most public schools today.

The next president should aggressively support state and national initiatives that attract exceptionally qualified candidates into teaching and that provide certification based on the candidates' demonstrated knowledge of the subjects they will teach, as well as their knowledge of how to teach. Terrific organizations like Teach for America attract the very best young college graduates from all d isciplines to enter the teaching profession. The Troops to Teachers program takes advantage of the sense of heightened responsibility and duty that military veterans were taught in the discipline of the armed forces, and which makes many of them excellent candidates to impart those virtues to our children, and help them see the value of learning as a means to self-improvement.

One of the most important ways to improve failing schools in our large cities and suburbs is to introduce more competition into the system, and give parents more choices about where their children go to school. In states and communities where these choices are allowed, teachers most often step up and share their ideas for building better schools. We have to open these doors to our educators, and resist opposition from bureaucracies and unions, whose interests fight the efforts of those they claim to represent.

There are fewer opportunities for choice and competition in rural areas and small towns, and it is often harder to attract enough quality teachers to meet the educational needs of your students. But new education technologies offer great partners, and bring the best teachers and most advanced technologies into the classroom where students and teachers alike benefit. Technology allows teachers in the smallest school in America to team up with the greatest math, English, and science teachers in the country. Nobody has to be isolated in their teaching. And students can be constantly challenged by a class that offers a fantastic teacher on-line and a supportive, quality teacher in the classroom when the going gets rough. The measure of success should be individual student achievement, regardless of how it's achieved.

Information technology has the potential for overcoming obstacles facing rural and small town schools. Virtual classrooms offer everything from remediation programs for struggling students to advance placement courses for students seeking extra challenges. And they offer training for teachers looking to improve their methods or acquire new skills. For students who work independently, there are even certified on-line high schools that offer full-blown alternatives to brick-and-mortar public schools.

The promise of these technologies is real and proven. Yet despite the urgent need for transforming our public schools, we still don't make sufficient use of technology that helps teachers focus individualized instruction on their students. Many innovative technology companies have become discouraged from selling in the education market. And many schools have employed inferior technologies that reinforced their reluctance to embrace software in the classroom. Government and schools should work with qualified and credible non-profits to establish a voluntary certification process for education technologies that determine their value and endorse them. And federal funding for education materials and professional development should explicitly allow endorsed digital and software content to qualify.

Our small towns and rural communities have so much to offer to Americans interested in assuming the unique leadership role so many teachers play in these communities. We must break down the barriers that prevent them from doing so. There is no reason on earth that this great country should not possess the best education system in the world. We have let fear of uncertainty, and a tired reliance on the old ways of doing things, and, for some, the view that education's primary purpose is to protect jobs for teachers and administrators degrade our sense of the possible in America. There is no excuse for it, not in this country.

In America, we change things that need to be changed. Each generation makes its contribution to our greatness. The work that is ours to do is plainly before us. We don't need to search for it. And no work could possibly be more important to increasing and spreading our prosperity to every part of America than reforming public education. We must make it the envy of the world, as many of our leading universities are, as befits a great and good country.

Thank you. Now I would like to take your questions and listen to your ideas. Like you, I have come to Alabama Southern Community College to learn.

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