Cory Booker gave the speech Democrats needed

It would be hard to overstate how dispirited, angry, exhausted, and hopeless many Democrats felt after watching the Brett Kavanaugh nomination play out. Not only have right-wing, partisan ideologues solidified their control of the U.S. Supreme Court, millions of sexual assault survivors feel like the Republican-controlled Senate punched them in the gut.

No one would have blamed Senator Cory Booker for missing the Iowa Democratic Party’s Fall Gala on October 6. He was stuck in Washington as Republicans scheduled a Saturday afternoon vote on Kavanaugh, without a full investigation of sexual assault allegations or any acknowledgement that the nominee lied under oath repeatedly during his Senate Judiciary Committee testimony.

Booker cast his vote against Kavanaugh, rushed to the airport and made it to Des Moines in time to give the keynote speech to more than 1,000 activists. Outside the hall afterwards, I heard one sentiment over and over again: Booker’s uplifting message was just what people needed to hear on a discouraging day.

Weaving together threads about American history, generations of his own family, and values Democrats have fought for, Booker kept the crowd’s attention and had them on their feet by the end. Although his remarks lasted for about 45 minutes, the speech didn’t feel long. Here’s my audio recording:

For those who prefer to watch, here’s the Iowa Democratic Party’s video. Note that Booker avoided the lectern, moving about the stage to engage with the audience (not easy to do in a large venue).

Booker began by asking the controllers to bring up the lights in the hall. Earlier in the day, “I was staring at a bunch of fellow senators, and this is much more beautiful.” After thanking Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price, Booker mentioned that he wasn’t able to come to Iowa on Thursday, as planned.

There’s an old saying that the best way to get God to laugh is to make plans for yourself. But the frustrating thing about this last week was I heard some laughter, but it wasn’t the Lord. I heard a president mock and laugh and jeer at a survivor for telling her story. I heard cheers and joy coming after a vote pushed a nominee forward.

As he realized his trip would be delayed, Booker changed the speech he was planning to give, especially when it became clear how the Kavanaugh vote would go.

I want to tell you a story, because I know there’s a lot of folks hurting right now. I know there’s a lot of folks who are upset. A lot of folks who are angry. Even when I was walking from here, I had survivors come up to me and give me a hug and let me know what the fight meant to them, but that they were too hurting.

I had my Senate office flooded with calls from people I don’t know, who had never told anybody about their sexual assault, but at this point felt the need and the urgency, felt like Dr. Ford, that it was their civic duty to come forward. And tonight, I want to talk to all of us who feel hurt right now, who feel anger right now, who feel pain right now.

The story I want to tell you is about the story of my beginning in politics.

Booker grew up in suburban New Jersey. After finishing law school, he moved to Newark and picked “one of the toughest neighborhoods I could find.” There was a lot of drug dealing and shootings in the projects. He still lives in that neighborhood and is the only U.S. senator living in an inner-city neighborhood. According to the U.S. census, the average household income is around $14,000.

Things have improved a lot since he moved there during the 1990s, but speaking to the Iowa audience, Booker wanted to focus on something that happened soon after he arrived. He provided one definition of faith: when you are leaving what you know, stepping into the darkness of a new challenge, “faith is knowing one of two things is going to happen: you’re either going to find solid ground beneath you, or the universe will send you people who will teach you to fly.”

One of the first people he met in this tough neighborhood was a tenant president in the projects named Miss Virginia Jones. “I always say that I got my B.A. at Stanford but my Phd on the streets of Newark, and she was one of my greatest life professors.” He was a young lawyer helping tenants, and she told him he should run for city council. Virginia Jones’ son was murdered in these projects. She earned enough to move to any neighborhood of Newark. When he asked her why she stayed in public housing, remained the tenant president after all these years, she said, “I am in charge of homeland security.” She had every reason to leave, but “She stayed in the fight.”

Years later, Booker lost his first campaign for mayor. He felt beaten and distressed by what was happening in the city. One day he was walking in the neighborhood while a shooting happened.

And I ran to this boy’s aid–and I get mad at the way we glorify violence. To see someone die from a gunshot wound, it is painful. It is jarring. It is a traumatic moment. I tried to stop this kid’s bleeding, but blood was everywhere, and by the time the paramedics came and pushed me out of the way, I knew he was dead.

And I remember that painful night, that night of anger. And I was so angry, and full of rage at our nation–how are we, all of us, Republicans and Democrats, agree on common-sense gun safety that would save lives in cities like mine. How can we not get things done?

And that night, I felt like giving up. I was done. I had lost an election. I was frustrated. I felt like people didn’t care. So many children were getting shot, in my community [and] across this country. That morning I woke up full of darkness and full of anger and full of rage and wanting to give up. And I came down the elevators and I walked through that lobby where Miss Jones’ son was murdered.

Early that morning, he saw Miss Virginia Jones in the courtyard. “It’s almost as if she heard my anguish.” She turned around and said nothing but approached him with open arms. She held him tight as he cried and “she repeated two words over and over again.” Those two words “became like a mantra to me on my toughest days.” He still repeats them to himself sometimes. He was in this woman’s arms as she told him, “Stay faithful. Stay faithful. Stay faithful.”

Booker’s phone has been filling up with the pain and the hurt from the Kavanaugh confirmation fight. He wanted to remind people in this “room full of fellowship” that “we’ve gotta stay faithful to some fundamental things.” First: remember who we are. His family taught him that you can’t be present or look to the future if you don’t understand your past.

For the next several minutes, Booker talked about the ideas on which “the oldest constitutional democracy on the planet” was founded. The U.S. wasn’t founded on a common religion or a common language or family tree. Our founders knew “We would be a nation that put forward values and ideals that would serve as a light unto other nations. That we would be a nation that savors freedom and justice and equality.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Booker continued. He wasn’t going to “whitewash” the flaws of our founders. The Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “savages” and doesn’t refer to women at all. “African American slaves were considered fractions of human beings. Stokely Carmichael used to always say constitu-, constitu-, I can only say three-fifths of the word.” Nevertheless, the founding ideals were so powerful “that every generation would be inspired to keep pushing, and to keep fighting, and to keep stretching to make this a more perfect union, more in line with those founding ideals.”

Fundamental to American values were the ideas of commitment to each other, shared sacrifice, and common cause: “we the people. E pluribus unum. One nation under God, indivisible.”

Booker spoke about his parents for the next several minutes. His parents “would not let me forget: remember where you came from.” His father would tell him stories from American history and emphasized how people worked together to make great things happen, for instance, building cellars and tunnels to create the Underground Railroad.

His dad would tell him he was born poor in the mountains of North Carolina. “The older I got, the worse his childhood got” in those stories. But he got an education in public schools, and when he couldn’t go to college, people took up a collection for him to attend a historically black college in North Carolina.

Booker’s father was there during the civil rights movement. He would later tell his son about seeing activists who went down South for the marches. “That’s how you got where you are,” his father would remind him. When he moved to Washington, DC, where Cory Booker was born, IBM hired him to be their first black salesman in the Virginia region.

The day he was sworn in as U.S. senator, Booker was walking with his mom from one side of the Capitol to the other, his father having passed away shortly before that election. “Here we are walking, I’m going to get sworn in by [Vice President] Joe Biden, and my mom, it’s like, it’s as if she’s never going to see me again. She’s like, ‘Boy, don’t you forget where you came from. Don’t you forget the struggles that got you here. Don’t you forget that the title doesn’t make the man, but the man has got to make the title.'”

Now for the Iowa connection (there’s always one, it seems): Booker’s maternal grandmother was born in Des Moines. One of his ancestors moved her nine children up from the South to Buxton, Iowa, an old coal-mining town with an established African American community. Booker joked that about 50 of his cousins came to the Iowa Democratic Party event to cheer him on. The family’s 99-year-old matriarch was there too.

I’m going to tell you, we are all descendants of Buxton. Remember where we came from. This is an Iowa story, this is an American story. And Buxton was ahead of its time.

Buxton is famous for its large African American community and unusual level of integration for the early 20th century. Black and white children went to school together, their parents went to social events together, coal miners worked together. “They were committed to each other.” According to Booker, after a coal miner died, the tradition was for workers to go down into the mine instead of to the funeral. That day’s wages would be dedicated to the widow and the children.

“This was an amazing town,” Booker said. Black and white women would make quilts together, “women in a circle, stitching their individual cloths into a greater whole.” Those women knew that we may be different in race or religion, but we stood together. “This is our history, and it’s how we got things done. That commitment to each other.”

Booker’s grandmother married a man from Louisiana and moved to Detroit, where his mother was born. His grandfather had a good union job in a car manufacturing plant. “And he was a Republican, because all black folk were back then, it was the party of Lincoln.” But his grandfather bragged about changing his party, because the Democrats “lived a value of commitment to one another.” The crowd began to cheer loudly as Booker ticked off the values that influenced his grandfather’s party switch, gradually raising his voice:

This is the party that cares about every single person, black or white, Christian or Jewish. It’s a party of values.

It’s a party of Medicaid and Medicare. It’s a party of Social Security, our commitment to one another.

It’s a party of voting rights. It’s a party of civil rights. It’s a party of women’s rights. It’s a party of LGBTQ rights.

It’s a party of the Americans with Disabilities Act, by Tom Harkin.

It’s the party of the environment.

It’s the party of we, not the party of me.

It’s a party of inclusion, not the party of exclusion.

It’s the party that believes someone who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.

It’s the party that understands that we care about the people assembled in the hall, but we [also] care about the people who will be here afterwards, cleaning up and cleaning the bathroom. That’s who we are.

We’re the party that remembers who this nation is and how we got here. We know the saying, that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.

And we, Democrats, faithful to our history, have to remember: if we’re faithful to our history, we have to remember how change is made. Change is not made by us sitting there hoping things happen. Change is not made by waiting for Washington. We Democrats know that change never comes from Washington. It goes to Washington.

Booker recalled that women didn’t get the right to vote because a bunch of men decided to give it to them. Strom Thurmond didn’t wake up and decide to give black people civil rights. Activists worked on that. If we know our history, we know change comes from common cause and a commitment to one another. Miss Jones, his “great professor,” taught Booker what hope is. “This woman whose son was murdered in the projects, she taught me that hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

Booker sees a lot of people “caught up in a state of sedentary agitation,” getting upset but not doing anything about it. He recounted attending Donald Trump’s inauguration. After the bizarre speech about “American carnage,” he overheard President George W. Bush telling President Bill Clinton, “That was some strange shit.” He confessed that he went home that night and curled up with a headache.

The next morning, as if the spirit of Miss Jones was all over this country, women from coast to coast, from the Great Lakes to the Gold Coast, got up and said, “Cory Booker, get out of that bed.”

This is not a time to curl up. It is not a time to shut up. It is not a time to give up.

It’s a time to get up. To rise up. To speak up.

It’s time for you not to wait for hope, but to be the hope.

After Trump signed the first Muslim ban, Booker’s chief of staff called him and told him to get out to Dulles Airport, where people were trying to enter this country and needed legal assistance. He rushed out and found hundreds of people at the airport, cheering Muslim families who were coming into the country.

Booker returned to lessons his parents taught him.

You’re going to encounter people who hate you for the worst reasons. You’re going to encounter people that scorn you. You’re going to encounter circumstances that are terrible, but you are never defined in life by what happens to you. You’re defined by how you respond.

Iowa Democrats are not defined by what Republicans have done, Booker said. Cutting Planned Parenthood, privatizing Medicaid, coming after public workers and public schools, “we’re not defined by that. We’re defined by what we do. And when we elect Hubbell and Hart, we will show America who we are.” He gave shout outs to secretary of agriculture candidate Tim Gannon and state auditor candidate Rob Sand as well.

We’re not defined by a president who mocks a hero, Dr. Blasey Ford. We’re not defined by a president who does not believe women. We’re going to be defined when this state not only says that we believe women, but we elect women. We elect [Deidre] DeJear. We elect [Abby] Finkenauer. We elect [Cindy] Axne.

Paraphrasing Alice Walker, Booker said “the most common way people give up their power is not realizing they have it in the first place.” Returning to Miss Virginia Jones, he said she understood that “if it is to be, it is up to me.”

During the last portion of his speech, Booker told an incredible story about his parents, Cary and Carolyn Booker. His dad did so well that IBM promoted him to their New York office. His mother also got a job with the company. When they looked for a house in the New Jersey suburbs, they repeatedly encountered discrimination that was typical for the time. The real estate agent would tell the Bookers the house was sold.

With the help of a local committee to battle housing discrimination, his parents set up a “sting operation.” They looked at a house and were told it was off the market. A volunteer white couple would then stop by and invariably would be told the house was for sale. One day the white couple put in a bid on the house the Bookers wanted. The bid was accepted. Cary Booker showed up with a volunteer lawyer to sign the contract. Upon learning he was in violation of New Jersey fair housing laws, the real estate agent punched the attorney in the face and sicced a dog on Cary Booker. In the re-telling, the dog got bigger and bigger, Booker joked.

Booker returned to the topic of his own political career: moving to Newark, running for office, eventually getting elected U.S. senator five years ago. He wrote a book called United that discussed patriotism, as well as his own family’s story.

You cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women. All of them.

We Democrats, we never can be pulled down so low that we hate folk. We can’t hate Republicans. We need each other as Americans. We’ve got to lead with love. You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. All the people.

While writing that book, he decided to fact-check the story his father had often told him about buying the house he grew up in. He tracked down a 92-year-old woman, Lee Porter, who is still the executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Northern New Jersey. She put him in touch with Arthur Leskin, the lawyer who helped organized legal assistance for black families during the 1960s. Booker asked Leskin why he got involved helping black people to move into his neighborhood.

Leskin told him that one night in 1965, he was sitting at home watching the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The network broke away from the movie to show footage from Alabama, where police viciously beat civil rights activists (including John Lewis) trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Horrified by the news coverage, Leskin became motivated to help make a difference. He connected with Lee Porter and started “working and scheming.” Four years later, a few months after Cory Booker was born, Leskin got a case file labeled Cary and Carolyn Booker, and he went to work.

Think about this for a second. What is that chain reaction?

Some people on a bridge who were defeated that day. They had a failure that day. They had their hearts broken that day. They were pushed back that day.

But just because they stood up for what was right, just because they stood up in an act of grace and citizenship and patriotism, just because they stood up in the name of love, they released an energy that instantaneously leapt a thousand miles and changed the heart of one man on a couch in New Jersey, who would then go on and change the outcome for a generation not yet born.

That is the power, and we all have that power. That power of love, the most durable force in the universe. That power of love, the most democratizing force there is.

Speaking on the Senate floor on October 5, knowing Democrats would fail to block the Kavanaugh confirmation, Booker “decided to go back to that bridge in Alabama.” He wanted to “tell the Senate and the world for the historical record what it means to face a defeat, to have anguish and pain.” He reached for the words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke not on the day marchers were beaten and gassed, but weeks later, when the marchers made it to Montgomery. Dr King spoke to the crowd. Booker repeated some of the most famous line from that “How long, not long” speech.

I know what you’re asking today: “How long will it take?”

I know folks are asking, “How long will prejudice bind us?”

I know what you’re asking today. Folks are asking, “How long will justice be crucified, and the truth have to bear it?”

I know you’re asking how long, but I want to to tell you today: how long? Not long. Because the truth crushed to earth will rise again.

How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.

How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow.

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Booker closed out his speech by applying Dr. King’s famous refrain to our current political plight. By the end the crowd was on their feet as Booker turned this famous phrase into a call and response:

And so, my fellow Americans, I ask you all, who have been fighting so long, who have to endure pain and hardship. I ask you, how long until we know the time of division and despair will sunset? How long we respond to their hatred with love? How long will it take?

Well I’m going to tell you, not long now. I want you to know, not long, because it’s not long until November.

How long? Not long until we elect a governor of this state who will stand up for women, who will stand up for Planned Parenthood, who will stand up for public eduction.

How long? Not long until we elect people who represent all of the people, not just the fortunate few.

How long? Not long until we not only believe women, but elect some great women to Congress.

How long? [Crowd: Not long!] until we flip the state House and the state Senate.

How long? [Crowd: Not long!] until we take back the House of Representatives.

How long? [Crowd: Not long!] until we answer this country’s hate with our universal love.

How long? [Crowd: Not long!] because it’s almost November, and if stand together and work together and struggle together and love each other like brothers and sisters, then justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Let’s go! Thirty-one days left. How long? [Crowd: Not long!] Amen.

Top image: Senator Cory Booker speaking at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Fall Gala on October 8, 2018. Cropped from the Iowa Democratic Party’s Twitter feed.

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  • Great speech

    I have been impressed with Booker but hadn’t heard him give an extemporaneous speech. It was very impressive. I heard a lot of my Democrat friends at the event (who are not an easy crowd to please) say it was the best speech they had heard by anyone – ever.

    Given the attention the Republicans are paying to him in responding to his speeches, it would appear they take him seriously – for good reason.