By Charles Hallman
Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker said Monday that everyone must stand up and be leaders in order for urgently needed change to occur in this country.
Booker, who is in his second term as Newark mayor, was the keynote speaker at the 21st annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Breakfast at the Minneapolis Convention Center Monday. He told the nearly 2,000 who attended the breakfast, “We must stand up, because change will not roll in on wheels…but on the backs of people willing to stand up. This generation of Americans is so caught up in what others are saying or doing, we have lost track of what we ourselves are doing.
“In life,” Booker said, “it is never about the big battle, the big moment, big speech or big election that changes things. What changes things is every day getting up and rendering full acts of service beyond that which is expected of you or required of you.
“We must stand up because people stood for us, fought for us and bled for us,” he continued. “We celebrate [Dr. King’s] words, but it was his work that got us to where we are today. I am a shadow of the greatness not just of King, but of others.”
Booker advised the audience, which included Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, City Council Member Don Samuels, State Representative Bobby Champion and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar among others, that democracy is not a spectator sport. “You can’t sit on the sidelines and give color commentary about what’s wrong. For democracy to thrive, you got to be in the game.”
Booker related to the audience the numerous stories told to him as a child by his parents, both of whom were active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. There was urgency for change in America during that movement, and that same urgency exists today, the mayor pointed out.
“Our leaders and communities responded because we saw that urgency. I look out my window and I see that urgency. We are not achieving those five words — liberty and justice for all,” he stressed. “We have not achieved that yet.”
Change involves more than just talk, but a personal commitment as well, said Booker. “You can’t expect the world to change if you remain the same.”
Angela Mwaniki of Golden Valley said afterwards that she found Booker’s speech very inspiring. “It brought us to action,” she noted. “What can I do?”
Champion said he agreed with Booker: “I thought he was on point, and he delivered it in a way that all could understand.”
“He looked everyone in the audience in the eye and challenged people,” said Sen. Klobuchar.
“I think he offered to all of us an opportunity to do better, to stand up and really serve our community in a much better way than we have been doing,” said Laverne McCartney-Knighton of St. Paul.
Cheryl Bethune, the breakfast committee chairperson, said that Booker was the ideal person to speak at this year’s event. “I thought he was phenomenal as he brought to us the challenge of how we need to jump into the game and not sit on the sidelines. Everyone is called to serve to do something.”
“It was a real great speech,” said Nicole West, a committee member. “He really inspired everyone.”
“I think today’s message by the mayor told all of us that the work of Dr. King is to be completed by each and every one of us,” said United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax, who also addressed the audience prior to Booker’s speech.
Since taking office, Booker has worked to improve his city’s police department to reduce crime — Newark in 2008 led the nation in reductions in shootings and murders by more than 40 percent. He also committed to transforming the city parks and playgrounds and doubled affordable housing over the last two years.
Booker spoke to reporters after his speech about the state of American cities and other current issues. “No city has created that atmosphere of hope that we really need,” he pointed out, adding that forging coalitions such as the public and private partnerships he has established in Newark is one approach.
“It takes a lot of work to build coalitions,” the mayor admitted. “That is where we are going, and it is the future for all of America. We have to form better coalitions, because no one group is going to do it all.”
Booker called the Arizona shootings two weeks ago “a learning moment. I hope and pray that our nation understands that we have more in common than what divides us; that we are more alike than we are different,” he said.
Asked if the GOP majority in the U.S. House would have an adverse effect on cities like Newark, Booker responded, “I hope that when Congress comes to the table they will consider all Americans when they are making decisions, and not just interest groups or partisan positioning.”
He does not agree with the Republican proposal to repeal the health care law: “In this rush to repeal, [I hope] that we don’t end up back where we were, where there are many more Americans suffering, and in securing health insurance they do not know what to do.”
Rybak met with Booker over lunch Monday to discuss the achievement gap issue, the Minneapolis mayor told the MSR, calling it “the single largest civil rights issue that we face here in Minnesota. Mayor Booker has really pioneered a lot of work about addressing urban achievement gaps.”
“I think you have two great mayors,” Booker said of Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.