Significant Speeches

Remarks of the Honorable David J. Hickton
United States Attorney For The Western District of Pennsylvania
At The
Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership & Diversity Awards

Heinz Field - East Club Lounge
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
January 14, 2011

Good Evening.

It is an honor to be invited to speak to you.

I want to recognize Sala Udin who is responsible for me being here tonight.

Sala Udin is a great friend of mine.  Throughout his life, Sala has been on the front lines of the battle for freedom and justice, working tirelessly for the common good.  He is a fighter; he is a champion, he is a leader, and I am proud to be his friend.

The event tonight, as is Coro Pittsburgh, is focused upon diversity and leadership.  I want to speak first of diversity and then come back to leadership.

Tonight, we celebrate diversity.  The Coro Awards are among the highest honors given in Western Pennsylvania recognizing diversity and inclusion.  It is important that we continue to celebrate those who promote diversity.  While much progress has been made, we have a long way to go.

Diversity is as American as Apple Pie.  This great Country was born and created upon the principle of diversity.  We have been described as the great ethnic melting pot; a nation of immigrants; and we always have valued, as a Nation, our differences.  Our greatness has been driven by our diversity.

We are enriched by diversity.  I am bewildered by those who seek to spend all of their time looking for people just like themselves.  They are missing a dimension of life - so vital - so beautiful.

My perspective is grounded in my upbringing.  Many of you knew of my father, the late Jack Hickton, former District Attorney of Allegheny County, from his days as a lawyer and in his public life.  But, what you may not know about him is that he was the child of an unwed Irish immigrant; born in a convent and adopted by an elderly couple who lived and worked as a janitor and seamstress at a church in the Bedford Stuyvesant Area of Brooklyn, New York.  As you may know, Bed-Stuy is as tough a neighborhood as there is and it was then an almost entirely poor non-white neighborhood.

So Dad entered life and lived as a child in a minority existence and saw life through the eyes of a member of his own minority community.  My Mom was also raised in Brooklyn and had a similar but less dramatic multi-ethnic upbringing and, as a result, we were raised to be not only tolerant and inclusive, but to appreciate and value difference and diversity.

As a family, we were strong supporters of the Pittsburgh Council on International Visitors and I do not remember many holiday dinners without a fond memory of  a guest student or professor or family from a different cultural background and often from a foreign country.  We learned so much and enjoyed these experiences greatly.

Let me share a personal story with you.  As a student leader at Penn State, I was confronted with a dorm dispute over a desire of one group of students to watch Roots in the TV room and a competing desire of another to watch another program.  A fight broke out among a group of students and the situation was volatile and the racial divide between urban black students and rural white students was stark.  Tensions were high primarily out of ignorance and fear.  The fear created hostility and the situation was tense.  To take the steam out of the situation, I helped form a cross-cultural exchange program designed to share, teach and educate students of diverse backgrounds about each other.  I remember the joy and tears when a farmer from Bedford, Pennsylvania, and a city kid from North Philly, who initially were wary of each other and thought they had nothing in common, realized that they had in common their desire to learn, gain and expand their horizons by stripping away the fear and skepticism and enjoying their differences.

This event had a great impact upon me and it still stirs me today as a parent of young children, each of which has taught me through the lens of their own experiences, that we are all born free of hatred, bias and prejudice, and that our natural curiosity and desire to grow and expand causes us to seek out others of all backgrounds.

It is the prattle of small minds; and fear, that drives people to become insular and narrow, to exclude not include; to pay homage to freedom and opportunity while living a life of hatred and division reflected in defacto segregation.  We are winning the battle for inclusion because it is right, it is good, and because equal access and opportunity for all is a fundamental core principle of our Country and our society.

I have long felt that the word inclusion may be a better description of the march towards equality.  Inclusion has a connotation of win-win; of addition, not subtraction. But, more importantly, there is an expectation or inevitability in the full meaning of inclusion that reflects my view that is only a matter of when, not if, we realize the goal of full inclusion for all.  I hope "diversity," which has served us well, will eventually yield to "inclusion."

While we celebrate diversity and we recognize diversity and inclusion as both a means and an end, we are really focused on opportunity.  We want to ensure that the promise of freedom reaches all Americans and that justice is applied evenly and fairly to ensure that no one leads a life of inevitable desperation.

Achieving this requires leadership.  Coro leadership training is a living example of the work necessary to our common future. The need for effective leaders in business and in the community and public service has never been greater.

I am going to take advantage of my position on this podium for a few minutes and address the remainder of my remarks directly to this year's Coro class.

One way to define leadership is to take a look at the great leaders in history and what they have done.  Each great leader was able to confront a serious challenge or lead a cause and rally a large constituency over great resistance and personal tribulation.

Leadership can be conferred by position or title or by intelligence or moral authority - or it can be conferred by a combination of all of the above   But, the achievement of a title does not mean a person has earned leadership; that must be proven by results.

Leaders are conscious of the present but focused upon the future - a better future.

Leaders are not merely managers - they do not seek to ride the status quo; they seek improvements, changes; they set goals and aspirations.  Leaders never give up; they endure the critics, the naysayers and the oppressors.  They exhibit sustained and sustaining courage, conviction, purpose and determination.

Leadership requires courage and commitment and most of all hope and optimism.  We must believe we can make a change; see another vision; embark upon a journey without knowing whether we have enough fuel in the tank when we begin.

Great leaders share common characteristics: vision; honesty; courage; determination; style and confidence.  Great leaders almost always exhibit the serene calm of great and prescient purpose when all around them seem to be absorbed by conflict and indecision.  This is because great leaders have a superior level of belief, purpose and conviction, and they are always prepared to lose with honor rather than win without dignity.

A list of history's great leaders might include Moses, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Mahatma Gandhi, Napoleon, Golda Meir, Franklin Roosevelt, Churchill, Vince Lombardi, John and Robert Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and Susan B. Anthony.  Every list includes Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., and their example is relevant to what I want you to think about tonight.

The leadership of Lincoln and King were best expressed in the Gettysburg Address and I Have a Dream speeches.  These speeches defined the conflicts and the objectives of their struggles.  These were great moments and the speeches were two of the best in history.  But I submit to you that the real lessons for us, in the study of the leadership of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., are in the similarities of their struggles and in a focus upon the core message in their public pronouncements.

In different ways, both Lincoln and King were influenced by other great leaders.  Lincoln drew strength from the example of Washington and Jefferson, but he was also influenced by the servant/leadership model, which is often traced to Jesus but assigned in more contemporary times to Gandhi, Lincoln and King.  Servant leaders aspire to "serve;" to place the cause first, to understand the plight of the members of the cause deeply and directly, and to lead a shared decision-making group selflessly.

King described himself as a student of Gandhi - who had pioneered civil disobedience in the early civil rights battles in South Africa and in the independence struggle in India.  Both Lincoln and Dr. King understood the difference between the battle and the war and the importance of winning both.  Both preferred persuasion over imposing order but each knew the importance of a fight.  And each understood the critical importance of truth and righteousness to ultimate victory in the war.

Lincoln's initial purpose was the preservation of the Union.  Dr. King's was equality.  Each had the opportunity to settle for half a loaf, but understood that honor and dignity and HONESTY required an eye towards the goal of winning not only the battle but the war.  Yet, both men understood that to win without honor; to win without dignity was short-sighted and self-defeating.  Each was prepared to give his life to the cause, and both did.

Both Lincoln and Dr. King surrounded themselves with strong personalities and rivals placing the cause above their comfort.  They embraced diversity and inclusion.  Lincoln appointed William Seward, Salmon Chase and Edward Bates, all Republican rivals for the presidency and severe critics to his war cabinet.

Lincoln's decision to surround himself with conflict was instrumental in his stewardship of the country through its most difficult time and this was achieved only through his superior ability to sacrifice his personal interest; to resist the urge to be vindictive or small or to indulge his pride or ego.

Dr. King did much the same.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference which Dr. King led included strong personalities like Ralph Abernathy, Joseph Lowery, Rev. Hosea Williams, Andy Young, Jesse Jackson, and others.  There were many diverse and strong opinions and conflicts over strategy.  The NAACP had long advocated a strategy of courtroom challenge.  In addition, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee led by the great John Lewis favored more a militant strategy.  The responsibilities of these organizations and their leaders were great; their choices on strategy and tactics were in opposition and their huddles were filled with conflict and debate.

Like Lincoln, Dr. King's success was directly tied to his ability to assert his leadership and unite the Movement behind a cohesive effective message of non-violent change, but it was achieved through the process of allowing and reconciling great debate and difference.  It was not easy for Dr. King or Lincoln.  In fact, it was very difficult.  The lesson here is that secure, principled leaders with conviction and courage focus upon the common good and see their individual roles as secondary.  The importance of the message and the moral righteousness of the cause are primary.

Both Lincoln and King faced bitter and acrimonious criticism and overcame defeat and disappointment.  Lincoln was called the worst president in history during his time.  Dr. King faced criticism from both sides; he was charged with being too confrontational by the Baptists and Christian ministers of other denominations and too weak by followers of the late Malcolm X.  Lincoln lost every election before being elected President and he was considered a sick, melancholy man lacking communication skills.  His stewardship of the war was severely criticized.  His reelection was in doubt.  Nevertheless, he persisted until he found his voice at a critical time, when our Nation was coming apart due to the Civil War.  Dr. King was subjected to beatings and abuses and was the subject of government surveillance and assaults upon his academic credentials.

Yet, it was in his letter from the Birmingham Jail that he demonstrated that he had the superior moral platform - he challenged the majority population and its religious leadership to assess their commitment and sincerity by confronting the hollowness of spiritual convictions used to perpetuate discrimination.  Only the shared conviction and determination of these men sustained them and it is hard to imagine where we would be without their fortitude.

History will reflect that Lincoln's leadership preserved the Union and eliminated slavery.  History shows that the heroic efforts of Martin Luther King advanced equality, led directly to the Civil Rights Act; the Voting Rights Act; and the Fair Housing Act and enfranchised and provided equality under the law for minorities, especially in the South.  Yet despite their great leadership, their inspiring speeches 100 years apart; and the sacrifice of their lives for the cause - the struggles continue.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln linked the creation of our Nation to equality for all.  He, through his brief and stirring words honoring the battlefield of that historic and defining battle, asked that we honor the deceased and asked that they not die in vain.  He tied the honoring of the battlefield dead to the long march of our history and stated the primary purpose of our Republic was the creation of equal opportunity.

We too, must link our work to a higher purpose. Effective leadership at any level requires reminding the group that we are part of a continuum; part of something bigger than ourselves and therefore our work is worthy of our best efforts and worthy of a common larger vision of service.  Our daily toil really can and really should be linked to the long march of freedom and justice.

In his speech on the Mall at the base of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. uttered many memorable lines.  My favorite is early in the speech where Dr. King stated,

"We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.  It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment."

Great leaders understand timing; they have the courage and wisdom to know when now is.  They understand the fierce urgency of now.  In Dr. King's time, he resisted the call to postpone the March on Washington for the same reasons the March from Selma to Montgomery, the confrontations of Governor Barnett and Governor Wallace and other key moments could not be delayed.  To delay was to lose.  To delay was to accept injustice.  To delay was to deny freedom.

To each and every one of you, we need your leadership, we need your courage, we need your determination.  Never in our history has the call for leadership been louder.  To the young people especially those in the Coro Leadership Program, understand the fierce urgency of now.  Step up and be counted.

You can lead from the private sector, you can lead from community position or you can lead from the public sector.  Let Sala Udin be your example; he has led from every position.

We have many problems and many challenges.  We meet this week at a time of sadness and tragedy for our Country.  The violence in Arizona is very troubling. We are sustained by the leadership of the President and Attorney General who have spoken directly on the events of last Saturday and it is not my place to comment further.  But, today we should say a prayer for the victims of this tragedy and for our Nation.  And, as aspiring leaders, you should reflect upon the leadership which is called for at all levels to ensure that the challenge of random violence is met, that we remember our work to combat violence and to preserve freedom and justice goes on.

There are many reasons for hope.  We have citizen leaders who have heard the call.   We have identified future leaders who have the intelligence and spirit to lead.  We have been tempered by a world of terror and saddened by the scourge of continued community violence.  We understand the great issues and their impact on the lives of our citizens.  But also we have found our voice and revived our belief in our ability to make change.

That is why I salute these young leaders and Coro for its great work.  With our help and active participation, talented young people will help solve community crime; they will work to find renewable energy; they will work to develop jobs and opportunity in a sustainable environment; they will help cure cancer; they will resolve the siege of worldwide terror; they will deal with all of the challenges known and unknown.  But today we must begin the journey; we must believe.  We must lead.

Thank you.

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