“Thank you, Reverend Sharpton, and happy King Day everyone.
“It’s great to be here with all of you, and let me thank Mayor Bowser for having us. My foundation has been glad to work with Mayor Bowser on some big issues.
“I think she’s doing an outstanding job, and isn’t it nice that Washington has at least one executive who knows how to keep a government open and running?
“Let me also acknowledge a great American who you’ll hear from soon, my friend, Vice President Joe Biden. Whatever the next year brings for Joe and me, I know we both will be keeping our eyes on the prize, and that is electing a Democrat to the White House in 2020 and getting our country back on track.
“Let me start by saying Reverend Sharpton and I go back a very long way. In the years before I ran for mayor in 2001, racial tensions ran high in New York City. And I knew back then that if people couldn’t work together, we as a city would get nothing done.
“So the night after I was elected, I called Reverend Sharpton and said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ He told me he would be attending a dinner for a business and civic group, called 100 Black Men. I asked if I could stop by the dinner to publicly shake his hand – and talk. And he said, ‘Of course.’
“I said, ‘Al, I’m sure no one will notice either one of us.’ Well, Reverend Sharpton couldn’t not be noticed if he tried.
“I went that night because I wanted to send a public message that as a new mayor, I was determined to bring the city together, and to listen to community leaders who had been shut out of power for too long.
“After I was sworn in, I invited Al to come down to City Hall for a meeting, so I could hear his views on the challenges we were facing – and what we should do about them. He said the last time he was in the mayor’s office he was arrested, for a sit-in at Ed Koch’s desk.
“Well, when he arrived, I was on the steps of City Hall to greet him and we went through the front door together.
“From the get-go, I was determined to ensure that City Hall would always be open to everyone. And while Reverend Sharpton and I disagreed from time to time, we knew we could do it without being disagreeable.
“When we had an issue at City Hall, I never hesitated to call him, and when he saw an issue around the city, he sure didn’t hesitate to call me.
“I was thinking about this breakfast when I was out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week. I went there because our foundation was giving a grant to help the city commemorate the Black Wall Street massacre that took place there in the 1920s – and that killed hundreds of African-Americans.
“Black Wall Street was a thriving neighborhood in Tulsa, and it was destroyed – violently destroyed – by racism. But for decades, the whole thing got swept under the rug. I read a lot of history, and I’m sorry to say I never knew about it, and it was one of the worst and deadliest attacks in American history.
“It’s another example of an injustice that isn’t well known or understood, and it’s up to us to bring those stories out of the shadows so that they never happen again.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve heard a lot of people on the right say, when talking about Civil War statues, ‘You can’t erase history.’ But what about all the history we haven’t taught? What about all the injustice that Americans don’t know about – the massacres, the lynchings, and the rapes?
“We don’t need to erase history. We need to face up to history and decide which statues reflect the people and events we want to honor as a country.
“When I think of the lessons Dr. King taught us, I often think back to something my father taught me when I was a young boy. I remember watching him write out a check to the NAACP for 25 or 50 bucks, which was a lot of money for him.
“My father never made more than $6,000 a year. I asked him, ‘Dad, why are you writing this check?’ He told me, ‘Because discrimination against anyone is a threat to all of us.’ If you accept it for others, he explained to me, you should expect it for yourself.
“Dr. King expressed that idea so powerfully in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He wrote: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
“My father died just 12 days after Dr. King wrote those words, but I know he and my mother couldn’t have agreed more. And when I think of what I’ve done in life that would’ve made my father most proud had he lived to an old age it would not have been my success in business. It would have been the work that he and my mother taught my sister and me to do – to help others, to right wrongs, and to fight injustice.
“I think it’s fair to say that while important progress has been made toward realizing Dr. King’s dream, the pace of progress is still too slow. But there’s not a doubt in my mind that it’s possible to accelerate the pace because I’ve seen it happen.
“In New York City, Reverend Sharpton and I worked together on many civil rights challenges where we jump-started and accelerated progress, beginning with education.
“Now, I know this will shock you, but when I was elected – surprise, surprise – schools in poor neighborhoods had been neglected and under-funded for decades. Changing that was one of the main reasons I decided to run for mayor – and we did change it thanks to the strong support we got from Reverend Sharpton and many others.
“We believed that every child, regardless of color, could learn and could achieve. And we insisted that every child, regardless of color, must have the chance to attend a quality school – no exceptions, no excuses. That’s our responsibility as public servants.
“I’ve always believed that the best way to reduce poverty is to prevent it in the first place, and that starts with teaching our children the skills and knowledge they need to pursue their dreams.
“So we closed schools that had been failing mostly minority communities for decades, and we opened new ones in their place that outperformed the old schools. We gave the New York City teachers a 43 percent raise to attract and retain the very best, and we more than doubled the education budget.
“We also got some important help from President Obama. We worked closely with his team on New York’s Race to the Top application which helped us raise standards and increase quality schools options, including charters, for families who had long lacked them.
“All of this work helped us increase graduation rates by 42 percent, and substantially reduce the racial achievement gap.
“Since leaving office, I’ve made education and access to college a major focus of my philanthropic work, and we’re accelerating progress there, too.
“But as Dr. King would’ve been the first to say, ‘We still aren’t moving fast enough.’
“The same is true on other issues that Reverend Sharpton and I worked on together, including another problem that will not surprise you: the worst air pollution in New York City was in poor, black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“You know this – children in those neighborhoods suffer much higher asthma rates than white children do. So we eliminated dirty heating oil, we built new parks, and we reformed the garbage hauling system. Instead of having all of the city’s garbage trucked through the poorest neighborhoods of the Bronx and Brooklyn, we spread the burden more equally, across all five boroughs.
“When I left office, New York City’s air was cleaner than it had been in 50 years, and clean air and clean water should be a right that is protected for every American in every community.
“Reverend Sharpton and I also saw that we could accelerate progress in juvenile justice. Working together, we reduced the number of kids held in the city’s detention centers by more than 40 percent, and we closed down upstate juvenile prisons that were located so far away relatives couldn’t get there.
“We brought those young people back home to their families and their schools, where they’d have a better chance of getting their lives back on track.
“There’s one other issue that Reverend Sharpton and I worked on that I’d like to touch on this morning because it’s impossible to mark Dr. King’s birthday without remembering how he died.
“Eight years ago, around MLK weekend, we held a gun violence prevention event at City Hall with family members who had lost loved ones, and we were honored to be joined by Martin Luther King III. It was one of the most moving events I’ve ever been a part of.
“Had Dr. King lived, I have no doubt he would’ve made gun violence an important part of his life’s work. And I have no doubt he would have been at the very front of the national March For Our Lives last year.
“But his spirit was with all the millions who marched and rallied including so many young people, like Nate Tinbite, who you’ll meet later this morning, and a very special nine-year-old, Dr. King’s granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, who said: ‘I have a dream that enough is enough.’
“I’ve spent enough time in churches over the years to say, ‘Amen.’
“Dr. King is still our drum major for justice. And as we celebrate his birthday, let’s remember that to truly honor the way he lived we must redeem the way he died.
“Now, as you may know, I’ve been fighting gun violence and the NRA for many years – spending hundreds of millions of dollars of my own money in support of gun safety candidates and causes. And I’m glad to say I’ve never seen more energy behind the movement than I see right now.
“It’s a movement that I think would have made Dr. King proud – every color, every gender, every religion, every background. We’re making real progress in both blue and red states. And here in Washington, the Democratic House that many of us worked to elect has already introduced a universal background check bill.
“I think Dr. King would’ve been especially proud to see the election of an African-American woman named Lucy McBath, from a district just outside his hometown of Atlanta.
“Lucy lost her son in a senseless shooting, but she turned her grief into activism, and became a volunteer leader in a group I’ve supported, Moms Demand Action.
“This year, she ran for Congress, and to help her I funded television and radio ads, and direct mail. Not a lot of experts thought she could do it, but I’m glad to say she won in a district that had once elected Newt Gingrich.
“So thanks to Lucy and so many others like her, our movement is on the march.
“Over the years, I’ve spoken with so many people who have lost family members to gun shots, and I can tell you those talks never get any easier.
“When I was mayor, an innocent young African-American, Sean Bell, was wrongly shot and killed by New York City police the day before his wedding.
“When it happened, I called Reverend Sharpton and I said, ‘Al, I want to meet with his family and fiancée to apologize, to accept responsibility, and to promise them that I’d do everything in my power to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.’
“I knew it wouldn’t ease their pain. But it was the right thing do.
“Now, I can’t stand up here and tell you that every decision I made as mayor was perfect. I listened to concerns and tried to be responsive. But I can tell you we were always guided by the goal of saving the lives of those who faced the greatest risk of gun violence: young men of color.
“And by cutting murders in half, I’m glad to say some 1,600 people are alive today who otherwise would not be. Most are young men from black and Hispanic communities. Others are young children, teenagers, grandparents, mothers and fathers.
“Thankfully, they were not killed simply for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I can’t tell you their names, but I can tell you that all across America, there are still far too many people who aren’t so lucky and far too many politicians who don’t seem to give a damn about them.
“I’m not going to accept that – and I hope you won’t either. It’s up to all of us to take up this fight, and to start bending the arc of justice faster than we ever have before.
“So tomorrow, let’s get back to work. And let’s honor the way Dr. King lived by saving others from the way he died.
“Thank you, and God bless.”