Thank you, Aleeza, for that great introduction. And I want to thank all the students and teachers who are attending this service in person or online. I feel at home today because I’m the third generation of my family giving a sermon here. And in my family tradition, I’m not giving an ordinary Sunday morning sermon. I’m giving a Monday morning call to action. In fact, my grandfather’s last sermon was here at Washington National Cathedral. He gave it this title: Remaining Awake During A Great Revolution. And you had better believe it was a call to action. In fact, my grandfather’s last sermon was here. Wait, you’ve probably heard, you’ve probably heard people arguing about being woke. Just remember this, my grandfather message to all of us, young and old, then and now, was wake up and get to work. When he spoke here in 1968, he asked his audience to wake up and get rid of racism, wake up and end poverty in the world’s wealthiest nation on earth, and wake up and stop the violence from foreign wars to our city streets. You know, I never met my grandparents, the Reverend Martin Luther king Jr And Coretta Scott King. But I do know the challenges they faced in their time because they are the same challenges that we face in our own time.
And it doesn’t have to be discouraging. It can be empowering that we are still struggling with the same issues. More than 50 years later, we are following in their footsteps on freedom’s road. Everyone knows my grandfather had a dream, but his most important message was to wake up and take part in the action and the passion of our times. His legacy is not an occasion to celebrate the past. It’s an obligation to fight for the future. That inheritance survives in the struggle on our streets. And it belongs to all of us, not just my family. My grandmother used to say that every generation has to earn their freedom. And I’m trying to spread that message to my generation, young people like you and me. I’ll never forget almost four years ago when I overcame the butterflies in my stomach and spoke at the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence. And I asked the young people to join me in a chant: “Spread the word. Have you heard? All across the nation. We are going to be a great generation”.
Four years later after a pandemic that is stealing our childhoods and an insurrection that almost stole our democracy, I believe that together, we’re going to be the generation that dismantles systemic racism. Together we’re going to be the generation that calls a halt to police brutality and gun violence. Together we’re going to be the generation that reverses climate change and saves the planet. And together we’re going to be the generation that ends poverty here in America, the wealthiest nation on earth. We’re going to feed the hungry, immunize the children and house the homeless around the world. To do all these things we need to do one thing above all. We’ve got to be the generation that defends, and extends, our most fundamental freedom, the right to cast a vote that counts.
I hope you’re learning this in school because this lesson is a lifetime. Without the right to elect our nation’s leaders and hold them accountable, we can’t get anything else done. But we, but when we register and vote and make sure our votes are counted, we build the world we want. A world without racism and sexism. A world without gun violence and police brutality. And a world without catastrophic climate change and extreme weather. That is why even before my grandfather declared, I have a dream, he demanded, give us the ballot. That is why John Lewis was nearly killed as he led marches across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. And they convinced Congress to pass the Voting Rights Law in 1965. That is why it mattered so much that the law protected our voting rights for 48 years, and why it matters so much that the Supreme court gutted the law in 2013 and further weakened it last year.
Let me bring that home to you loud and clear. If you’re nine years or older and you look like me, then you will have fewer voting rights on your 18th birthday than America promised you on the day you were born. Fewer voting rights than John Lewis, my grandfather and millions of unsung heroes, struggled and sacrificed for. That is why yesterday, on my grandfather’s holiday, we have said, “No celebration without legislation”. No celebration until the Senate passes, and the president signs the Freedom To Vote Act. Not until we restore every American’s right to vote and guarantee that those of you here in DC can have voting representation in Congress. Not until America becomes a democracy in practice as well as in promise.
I hope you all, I hope you are learning in school that in the past rights were denied by Ku Klux, Klansmen, burning crosses, brutal police swinging billy clubs and domestic terrorists bombing churches. To today, we’re up against judges wearing black robes and state legislators in business suits. But while the clothes are different, the consequences are similar. In 19 states, including my family’s home state Georgia, the legislators have passed 33 laws, making it more difficult for black, brown and poor people, and folks with disability to cast a vote that counts. That is wrong. And the Senate needs to make it right by passing the Freedom To Vote Act and busting the filibuster. That has always been a barrier to civil rights and voting rights.
And let me say this to the young people who may think it’s cool to be skeptical or cynical: if voting can’t change anything, why have the racists used every trick in the book, intimidation, beatings, and even assassinations to keep us from voting? Why did insurrectionists attack our nation’s capital one year and 11 days ago to try to overturn the presidential election? The bad guys know voting matters. And so must we.
Two and a half months ago in this city, I was arrested for the first time at a demonstration demanding voting rights. When we were arrested, we asked our nation’s leaders, why are you in power? Just to hold office or to defend our democracy? Today and every day, let’s ask ourselves, why are we Americans? Why are we alive at this moment in history? As my grandfather warned from this pulpit, let’s not sleep through these revolutionary times. Let’s be awake, alive, and at work. Let’s continue the struggles of those who came before us. And let’s fight for the futures of those who will come after us. And let’s be a great generation. You know, they’ve called us gen Z, but we can do better. Let’s be generation D for democracy. Let’s be generation V for voting and let’s be generation G for the greatest ever until our own kids and grandkids come along. Thank you all for joining me in this hallowed historic place. And thank you for everything we’re going to do together.