The Vice President who had just returned from a trip to Ft. Campbell Kentucky was in a very reflective mood, as his wife Dr. Jill Biden welcomed several distinguished members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Mayors, State Legislators, County Officials, and former elected leaders such as Wellington Webb who served three terms as Mayor of Denver Colorado.
Dr. Biden welcomed the guests, introduced her husband and excused herself as she had to attend a special event for community colleges. This segway was the lead in Vice President Biden used to talk about the importance of Black History Month as he reflected on everything from his recent meeting with young pre-teen African American football players at Ft. Campbell (whose parents are deployed Afghanistan and Iraq military warriors), to his becoming an attorney in 1968 just after the death of Dr. King (and the subsequent riots), and finally to his train ride with President-elect Barack H. Obama in January 2009 as the newly elected Vice President-elect to the nation's first ever black President.
In prepared remarks that lasted approximately eight minutes Vice President Biden stayed mostly clear of the politics of the day, except for noting at the outset that many of his friends in the Congressional Black Caucus could not attend because they were preparing for votes on the Continuing Resolution to keep the government from shutting down, and that "they were fighting for some key things important to the black community." He alluded to the fact that if the Republican controlled House of Representatives has its way, the next 18 months will be a "rough ride" and that they seek to cut many programs that are critical to Mayors, state and county officials nationwide who represent struggling communities, which are mostly of color.
He joked, "My recovery act doesn't look so bad now-does it." Everyone laughed and nodded in agreement.
The Vice President opened his substantive remarks for the evening by talking about the importance of community colleges, particularly to the sustainability of upwardly mobile, educated Blacks in America. He pointed out that his longtime friend from Wilmington, Delaware, Mayor James Baker (who was in attendance at the reception) stood side by side with him on the train platform at Wilmington station in 1968 as they watched the city of Wilmington lay in ruins from the riots in the aftermath of Dr. King's death. He reflected movingly on how some 40 years later, he stood on that same platform in Wilmington, Delaware waiting to board a train that carried in its cars the newly elected Black President of the United States, Barack H. Obama. Biden said that he had a moment standing at that station where he remembered the riots and said to himself, "We may have a lot more to do, but damn, we've come a long way."
The Vice President closed his remarks by saying that "the best way to celebrate history, is to make it". He offered pointed tribute to the strength of the Black men and women who were standing in the room, and who work tirelessly for their communities. And he also remembered those who had come before. He talked about Frederick Douglass and the freed black slaves who in 1862 became union soldiers, and how out of 35,000 who died during the Civil War, 16 of that number were honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He talked about how his first case as public defender was in representing two black panthers who were accused of causing the riots in 1968.
The most poignant and moving line of the night was offered by the Vice President as he was talking about the sacrifices of all of those who had come before this present generation of accomplished African Americans. The Vice President spoke of the sacrifice, the struggle (quoting Fredrick Douglass-"no struggle, no progress"), he spoke about the "halting" but continuous struggle for equality in America, and he called on us all to remember that "Sometimes the people most burdened in life, have to add more burdens upon themselves so that others can have their burdens lifted from them." Very fitting words on a day where we all witnessed Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his dedication and sacrifice in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, some 40 years later at the hands of the nation's first Black President of the United States.