Alma Powell Remarks

Birmingham, AL
April 4, 2013

Thank you, Diane.  It is very special to be here with you today.  And while I’m at it, will you please join me in thanking those who did so much to make today possible:

Mike and Gillian Goodrich for hosting us and also Carol Butler with the Mike and Gillian Goodrich Foundation, Mayor Bell and the city of Birmingham for welcoming us, Marguerite Kondracke, who had the vision for this event, and America’s Promise CEO John Gomperts. And of course we would like to thank AT&T for supporting the work of America’s Promise Alliance for so long and with such commitment to our young people.

I am especially thankful and honored to be part of an event that has “carried me home.” I would like to acknowledge a very special person in attendance today – someone who truly understands how our work connects to all of the national challenges we face: Harris Wofford.

Harris is a great leader in both civil rights and in enlisting Americans in service to the community, and he was instrumental in the creation of America’s Promise Alliance. That he was so deeply involved in all these areas is no coincidence, because they are all related.  And that inter-relationship is really what I want to talk to you about today.

The Symbolic Importance of Today

Fifty years ago, Birmingham was the crucible of the crusade for civil rights. On interstate buses, in churches, on the streets, young people were at the heart of what happened here. They were attacked and battered, but they never wavered in their determination to keep going until America honored the promise of equal protection under law.

As they persisted, more Americans joined in. And the ripples that went forth from Birmingham added strength to others from around this country until, together, they became a surging, unstoppable tide that brought a fresh wave of freedom across this land.

Now we wage a new crusade, which is an extension of the old one. Because education has always been the golden door to opportunity, it truly is the civil rights issue of our time. It is the promise we must keep.

What better place to reflect on and renew this work than here in Birmingham, which, as Fred mentioned earlier, will be the site for one of our first of 100 community summits over the next several years.

Why We Must Be a Grad Nation

For far too many of our young people today, the door to opportunity is closed — simply because they had the bad luck to grow up in the wrong zip code, amid neighborhoods with failing schools…with too few of the Five Promises that all children need to thrive: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education and opportunities to serve.

The result? One in every five of our students fails to complete high school. Among African American and Hispanic students, nearly a third will fail to earn a high school diploma.

This has very serious implications for a country where today’s minorities will soon be the majority. It has very serious implications when earning a high school diploma is no longer a finish line but only the starting line. And it has serious implications for our ability to restore our economy and compete globally. This is not simply an education challenge. It is an American challenge.

A Campaign We Can Win

And so we seek to engage all Americans in a campaign to forge a Grad Nation… a nation in which every child attends a school where graduation is the norm and opportunity is not just a word.

It is a campaign that must involve everyone: our schools, our businesses, the faith community, concerned adults and young people themselves. It is a campaign we can win. And we are making good progress. Just a few weeks ago, we announced that graduation rates have improved so much that we are on pace to achieve 90% high school graduation by the end of this decade.

And guess who’s leading the way in this new campaign for civil rights? The South!

Of the 20 states that have seen the greatest progress over the last several years, HALF are from the South, and Alabama is one of those states.  More significantly, this progress is being fueled by a rise in graduation rates among minority youth. Did you know that we’ve actually cut the number of our African American and Hispanic students trapped in our worst high schools in HALF since 2002? 

But the pace of change must quicken, because Birmingham’s children, Alabama’s children, America’s children cannot wait. As with other civil rights, gradualism is not the answer. We must summon what Dr. King called “the fierce urgency of now.”

Reaching the Promised Land

It was 45 years ago this day that Dr. King was killed. The night before his murder, he told the crowd who came out in a thunderstorm to hear him that victory was in their reach — because he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land.

He was not wrong. But if you know the Bible story, you know it took the children of Israel a number of years to fully win that Promised Land after they entered it. It took hard toil and the effort of everyone.

That’s where we find ourselves with the civil rights issue of THIS generation. We have come into the Promised Land. But it will never be fully ours until we have secured the Promise of opportunity for every child.  So, we have work to do.

Despite the divisions in America today, we remain united in our belief that all children should have a real chance to succeed. That is the story of America at its best. And that dream is within our reach, if we commit ourselves together to make it a reality.

So let us sound a new call to action across this country. Let us come together again to keep the promise of America for all, and for our common future.  And in this work let us share the same resolve of those who, 50 years ago, stood together here in Birmingham and sang: “We’re not going to let ANYBODY turn us around!”  Thank you.