Speech* by Deputy Attorney General
LARRY D. THOMPSON
in Celebration of Black History Month
February 18, 2002
Fort Valley State College
Fort Valley, Georgia
It is good to be at Fort Valley State at this Black History Month celebration to commemorate the significant achievement African Americans have made and, most importantly, are making to our nation and the world.
I would like to talk to you a bit about what I have been doing as Deputy Attorney General and then briefly talk to you about my own educational experience and a couple of things I learned as a student that I believe have been VERY IMPORTANT to my professional and personal development.
As Deputy Attorney General, I am Second in command to Attorney General John Ashcroft. DOJ is vast: several litigating divisions, including Criminal, Civil, Antitrust, Tax, Environmental and Civil Rights. Other agencies are: INS, FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals and Bureau of Prisons.
I spend a fair amount of time on terrorism. The horrific events of September 11 have had a profound and lasting effect on our nation. Threats of terrorist attacks are real and continuing.
You are among first group of Americans who risk mass murder by a foreign enemy on American soil. Other wars-including Revolutionary and Civil Wars-involved army vs. army; not civilian mass casualties.
On 9-11, over 3,000 of our fellow citizens were killed SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY WERE AMERICANS. There was no discrimination between rich and poor; black or white; Christian or Jew.
Sometimes we ask the question: WHY DID THESE EVIL PEOPLE ATTACK US? I believe the answer is clear. THEY FEARED OUR FREEDOM. They feared the fact that we are a nation of INDIVIDUALS - NOT MINDLESS FANATICS.
The Taliban and Al Qaeda repressed their people. Women were forbidden to receive an education. Anyone with different religious or political views were subject to execution or imprisonment.
And because we are at Ft. Valley State, a historically black land-grand university founded in 1895, IT IS IMPORTANT TO NOTE THE CENTRAL ROLE AFRICAN-AMERICANS ARE PLAYING IN OUR NATION'S FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM. I believe all of you know 2 of them: Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice. They are two of President Bush's closest advisors in the war against terrorism.
But, there are others:
There is Ambassador Frank Taylor, who is in charge of the State Department's counter-terrorism efforts. Before we launched the military offensive against the Taliban, Amb. Taylor traveled the world making the case against Bin Laden.
There is also Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services, Claude Allen. Mr. Allen is responsible for our country's war against chemical and biological terrorism. He is coordinating our country's medical and scientific efforts against the anthrax attack we experienced some time ago.
ALL AMERICANS, including those of us at this event today, face the threat of future terrorist attacks. BUT, during Black History Month, it is good and appropriate to note that African-Americans are playing VERY IMPORTANT roles in our nation's fight against terrorism.
Events like this remind me of a story I once heard about our former heavyweight champion, Muhammed Ali. As you know, Muhammed Ali used to predict the round in which he would knock out his opponent. One night after a fight in Atlanta in which Muhammed Ali had knocked out his opponent at the predicted round, the champ was feeling pretty good. He was on a plane at the Atlanta airport, returning to his farm in Pennsylvania. As the plane was taxiing to the runway, the flight attendant informed Ali that he needed to fasten his seatbelt. The champ turned to the flight attendant with amazement and said, "Do you know who I am? I am the heavyweight champion of the world. I am Superman. And Superman don't need no seatbelt." The flight attendant thought about this and quickly shot back to the champ: "Well, Superman don't need no airplane neither."
We are not supermen or superwomen. We can learn from each other and from others.
I want to briefly share with you a couple of thoughts that I learned and that have been important to me: Avoid following the crowd and don't be afraid to dream.
I was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri. My father was a railroad laborer and my mother was a cook. I attended an all black school for grades one through eight. Almost all of my teachers were from Lincoln University, another HBC&U in Jefferson City, Missouri. At that little, all black school - Douglass School - we were all taught to be individuals. Our individuality was respected.
Today, sometimes there seems to be an attitude that we as black people must march in lockstep; we must be in agreement on all things ranging from what kind of attitude we must have on education to how we respond to some of economic and social issues facing African-Americans. Use your education and think for yourself when you listen and analyze what some people are telling you regarding these issues. Don't rely on slogans or mindless rhetoric.
Remember what Dr. Martin Luther King once said:
"May people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion."
Make up your own mind about the issues facing African-Americans and make up your own mind about what you want to do with your life.
We African-Americans used to resent people who said we all look alike; it is a far greater evil that some say that we, especially our youth, all think alike.
I told you about what my parents did for a living; I definitely was not a rich kid. But it was not until I went off to college and studied sociology and economics and political science did I realize how disadvantaged I could have been growing up in Hannibal, MO. Note that I said "COULD HAVE BEEN" and not "WAS." Those dedicated teachers at that all black school would never, ever allow us the crutch or excuse of being poor or being disadvantaged. Great things were expected of us; great things were even demanded of us.
And then there was this spelling bee incident. I finished second, but the teacher didn't allow me an excuse; said I could have done better and would need to practice more.
You see - those teachers really cared about us. We were encouraged to strive for excellence; to strive for great things; to dream.
One of the greatest thoughts on education and life in general that I have ever read was pinned by the late Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, former President of Morehouse College. Some of you may be familiar with this-but you cannot hear this or read it too often. In encouraging his students to dream, Dr. Mayo said:
"It must be borne in mind that the tragedy in life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach. Not failure, but low aim is a sin."
I cannot remember a single teacher I had at Douglas School that would tolerate low aim. I do not believe there is a single teacher at Ft. Valley State who would tolerate it as well. Schools like Ft. Valley State not only have opened the doors to knowledge when other doors were barred - they have also provided the important tools of empowerment that have allowed many students to dream dreams - and achieve them - that some would think unimaginable. You have produced outstanding alums like Eugene Jones who has had a profound influence on public education in Atlanta.
And this is why President Bush on February 12th of this year signed an Executive Order that will strengthen HBCUs and why his budget has pledged a 30 percent increase over four years of federal support for HBCUs.
There is a wonderful story that I heard some time ago that I believe accurately reflects on how we should try and achieve our dreams. The story concerns an old man and his grandson who were sitting out in country one day beside a great tree. They were sitting beside this tree, looking around, admiring the scenery and sitting beside them was a rather well-built and beautiful hound dog. As they were admiring the scenery, a bunny rabbit hopped by. The hound dog immediately drew a beam on the bunny rabbit and began to chase the rabbit. It was a fast, furious and long chase. The hound dog chased the rabbit through the forest, over the hills, and around the farm. The chase lasted three hours. Soon, the hound dog came back to the old man and the little boy, tired, out of breath and without a rabbit. The little boy was puzzled. "How is it," he asked his grandfather, "that a small animal like that bunny rabbit, with a small furry body, can outrun a hound dog with a large, muscular body and powerful, long legs?" The old man looked at the boy and with all the wisdom he could muster said, "Son, the hound dog was running simply for the thrill of the chase. The bunny was running for his very life."
SO.... Dream your dreams. But pursue them as if your life depended on it - because it does! They will never be achieved without persistent, smart and determined effort.
*NOTE: Mr. Thompson frequently speaks from notes and may depart from the speech as prepared. However, he stands behind the speech as presented in written format.