Remarks On Receiving The Hubert H. Humphrey Award Of The Leadership Conference On Civil Rights

[On Wednesday, May 12, 2010, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) was recognized at the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award Dinner, sponsored by the leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  The event is the year’s largest gathering of the civil and human rights community.  Leahy was awarded the 2010 Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award in recognition of his long record of advocacy for social and economic justice.  Previous recipients of the award include the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, President Bill Clinton, Representative John Lewis, and others.]

It is an honor to be here with John Lewis and all of you.  As the grandson of immigrants who came to this country for the promise of freedom and equality, it is inspiring to be surrounded by so many of today’s civil rights leaders.

My grandparents believed in the American dream.  They bore witness to anti-immigrant prejudice and discrimination of an earlier era.  I recall my father telling of the signs he encountered as a teenager, which read, “No Irish need apply,” or “No Catholics need apply.” Just as my grandparents dreamed that things would be better for my generation, I dream big for all of my grandchildren. All of us gathered here tonight are heirs to those great Americans who dreamed of a better time.  The Leadership Conference puts those dreams into action.  And we must continue to act.

We must act to ensure that all children have the opportunity to fulfill the dreams that their parents and grandparents have for them.  We must act to protect families from the devastating effects of discrimination and the violence of hatred.  We must act to quell the racial and ethnic fears so-often used against the march of progress. It was just two years ago that Americans voted for the promise of hope over the politics of fear.  Since that victory, we have fought to continue the march toward a more perfect union.

I remember seeing many of you last year at the White House signing ceremony for the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and later for the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  Those were important steps forward.

This summer, the Nation’s attention will again turn to the importance of those who sit on our highest court.  This is an opportunity to focus on why we need federal judges who will uphold laws designed to protect our fundamental rights. The President has chosen a former clerk of Thurgood Marshall who called him “the greatest lawyer of the 20th Century.”  Elena Kagan said that he taught her that “behind law there are stories – stories of people’s lives as shaped by the law, stories of people’s lives as might be changed by the law.” That is an important lesson.

The greatness of our Constitution is not its age, but its eternal mission.  The Founders created the greatest democracy on Earth, but it was not without its imperfections.  The Civil War Amendments – the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments – were some of the most magnificent bequests to all the generations that follow. The judges and Justices interpreting the Constitution, the legislators who work to implement it, and the officials who enforce the law must all strive to protect those gifts and honor the struggles of earlier generations. I know that the Leadership Conference has fought for six decades to ensure that this promise rings true.  I was privileged to serve with Hubert Humphrey so this award means a lot to me.

I accept it on behalf of the entire Leahy family – on behalf of the generations who have passed and of those still to come.       

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