Remarks at the Iliff School of Theology — As Delivered
You know, last week, I had the chance to go back and be sworn in again to the United States Senate, which is a great privilege. And the day before we had that ceremony, my wife Susan and our three daughters were in Washington, D.C., and we all went to the African American History Museum. I’ve been there several times before.
It is impossible to walk through that museum without feeling the weight of history, and without having to confront the injustice that Scott was talking about — of what previous generations of Americans did to their fellow Americans, from Solomon Northrup to Emmitt Till. That’s why museums matter.
But when you leave a museum like that, it can be tempting to imagine that you’re also leaving behind the history. And of course, nothing could be further from the truth. That history lives with us every day.
And you can draw a straight line, as I’ve said all across the state of Colorado, over and over again for the last fourteen years, in red parts of the state and in blue parts of the state, in places where people might vote for me and in places where they would never vote for me.
You can draw a straight line from slavery to Jim Crow, to the redlining of our housing and banking industries, to the mass incarceration today that we have in the United States, to the deep educational inequities that we have, to the disproportionate number of Black Americans who died during the pandemic, or who face eviction in this country, or whose kids can’t go to school online because they didn’t have high-speed internet at home.
That isn’t history. This is our American reality today.
I was born in 1964. I pointed out to my nephew, who had come with us to the African American History Museum the other day, that that meant that the year that I was born [was] less than a hundred [years] after people owned human beings here in the United States of America.
And what I was trying to tell him was that’s not ancient history. That’s two fifty-year lifetimes connecting the year that I was born to the end of the civil war. And that was also the year of Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, when I was born.
And before I was five, incredibly, America had passed the Voting Rights Act. We passed the Civil Rights Act. We confirmed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, which then overturned bans on interracial marriage.
When I was in college in the late 80s — studying history and protesting apartheid — there was a sense that America was making progress. That we were making steady progress. That we would always make progress, slowly but surely.
And when I graduated from college, it would have been inconceivable — I would not have believed it if you told me — that 30 years later, America’s racial wealth gap would remain virtually unchanged. That it would be the same.
If you had told me then that our urban public schools would be just as segregated in the year 2023, I wouldn’t have believed it. I couldn’t have believed it.
And I wouldn’t have believed that we’d ever elect a president of the United States who began his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and ended it with the Big Lie. But it’s true.
And the value of studying history, in my view, is that you appreciate that America has faced moments like this before — and we have overcome them because of the choices Americans made. And that’s what I’d like to leave you with tonight.
Last October, you might have noticed that President Biden came to Colorado. I was in an election for my re-election, and I had to confess that my campaign wasn’t very happy with my inviting the President because his approval numbers were not actually very high. And their view was that it wasn’t going to be helpful to my re-election.
But I thought it was important for him to come because the reason he was coming to Colorado was to designate Camp Hale as the first national monument of his administration. The veterans of Camp Hale deserved for the President of the United States to be here.
Last year, we also made Camp Amache an official part of the National Park Service, on the southeastern plains of Colorado. And what I said on the campaign over and over again this year was, “Think about those two camps — those two camps in Colorado, 80 years ago.”
It’s not ancient history.
I always say when I come to this part of the talk, there’s someone here who is 80 years old, and they always say, “Yeah, it was yesterday that I was graduating from high school.”
80 years ago.
80 years ago when my mom was surviving the Holocaust, miraculously, in Warsaw with her parents who were Jews living in Poland.
At Camp Hale, you know, I told the story with the President of the people that had come from all over the country who had come here to train to fight on skis. Some of them were the best skiers and mountaineers in the world. Some had never seen snow before.
And they spent two years training under conditions that were unimaginable. Because we’re in a religious place, I’m not going to say what some veterans, or some kids of veterans say — well, I’ll just say, “the coldest son of a bitch in the world,” is what they said. That’s what they said about the mountain that they trained on.
But in two years, they trained to go to northern Italy, break through the Nazi lines, and they did it. That was the beginning of the end of World War II.
It’s a great Colorado story. That is a great American story.
But at the same time, at Camp Amache on the southeastern plains of Colorado, ten thousand people — mostly Japanese American citizens — were locked up behind barbed wire, stripped of their constitutional rights, stripped of their property rights, on the order of politicians in Washington, D.C.
It is such a profound reminder that our history has always been a struggle of contrasts, as the President said. Always been a struggle between the highest ideals that humans have ever committed to the page — the words in the Constitution of the United States — and the worst impulses in human history — in our case, human slavery and the displacement of entire Indigenous cultures, and at Camp Amache, locking thousands up behind barbed wire, just 80 years ago.
And that [is a] struggle that we are still in today.
When a justice of the Supreme Court can write, as Justice Alito did in Dobbs vs. Jackson, that if a right didn’t exist in 1868 — before women had the right to vote, before Black Americans had the right to vote- if a right didn’t exist in 1868, it doesn’t exist today, you know we’re in that struggle.
When we have an education system that, instead of liberating kids from their economic circumstances, reinforces the worst income inequality that we have had in a century in this country, you know we’re in that struggle.
When people feel like they don’t have economic opportunity and they lose confidence that this democracy will actually deliver for them, and that an ambitious politician would show up, as they always do in human history, and say, “I alone can fix it. You don’t need a democracy. You don’t need the rule of law.” You know we’re in that struggle.
And when our fellow citizens stormed the Capitol two years ago under their racist banners and flags, and with their anti-Semitic t-shirts — you know we’re in that struggle.
Gary is saying, “You’ve got to stop.” And I will stop, the problem is you picked a topic that I really care about.
But it’s really up to all of us.
The people who trained at Camp Hale could have easily been interning their fellow Americans at Camp Amache. They chose not to. They chose America’s highest ideals.
The people who faced fire hoses and police dogs and poll tests had every reason to give up, to question America’s commitment to our highest ideals.
There is every single reason why John Lewis, when he was sacrificing his skull on the Edmund Pettis Bridge to those billy clubs, should’ve doubted whether the democracy stood for him. But [he] didn’t. And he didn’t give up.
Instead, they asked America to live up to those ideals — from Frederick Douglass, to John Lewis, to the hundred other names honored on the walls of the African-American History Museum that my wife and kids visited.
And even many of the people at Camp Amache never lost faith in America. People like Marion Konishi, a senior at Amache High School, who wrote a valedictorian speech to her fellow classmates from behind barbed wires.
And she wrote, and I’m quoting her, “Sometimes America failed and suffered. Sometimes she made mistakes, but she always admitted them and tried to rectify the injustice that flowed from them… Can we the graduating class of Amache Senior High School still believe that America means freedom, equality, security, and justice? Do I believe this? Do my classmates believe this? Yes, with all our hearts, because in that faith, in that hope, is my future, our future, and the world’s future.”
So I want to leave you tonight by saying thank you for caring about our country. Thank you for caring about our democracy. And thank you, like Marion, for caring about the world’s future. Thank you for having me.