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Remarks for Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson “Reflections of a 50-year Vineyard Vacationer" - As Delivered

Release Date: 
July 3, 2016

Martha’s Vineyard, MA

Richard, thank you very much for that introduction.

I’d like to acknowledge Secretary Sullivan, as well as Gil Kerlikowske, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection who is here today.

With my late Uncle Kenneth Edelin perched on my shoulder this morning, I am pleased to deliver this civilian sermon today on “Lay Sunday.” 

I’d like to also give a special recognition to my Morehouse classmate John Wilson.  He and I were once bitter political rivals.  We ran against each other for senior class president.  I lost, 27 to 43.  I still remember the vote count. 

In retrospect, I’m glad I lost.  For one thing, when you get elected senior class president, you effectively become president of the class for life.  I did not appreciate that.  The other reason I’m glad I lost is that when John became senior class president, that effectively put him on the path to the position he occupies today, as President of Morehouse College.  I was crushed.  I eventually got over my loss.  Instead of becoming president, I settled for being a member of the President’s Cabinet. 

I give a lot of public remarks.  I delivered seven graduations speeches this spring.  I testify before Congress a lot. Several weeks ago I appeared on every network morning news show to tell the public what we knew about Orlando.  

But, today’s remarks are special for me.  I’ve never been asked to speak in a place of worship, or to give a sermon, civilian or otherwise.  That’s a lot of pressure because I know how special a Sunday sermon is.  As a Morehouse Man I’ve heard many good Sunday sermons.  I’ve heard some pretty good ones right there in this chapel – delivered mostly, by the way, by Morehouse Men. 

Two years ago I heard John remind us what his grandmother used to tell him on this island “boy, you’re not hungry, you really thirsty.”

The title of these remarks is “Reflections of a 50-Year Vineyard Vacationer.”

And these remarks are my own personally reflections; today I do not speak for the Obama Administration.

Like many of you, I’ve been coming to this Island a long time.  Fifty-four years, to be exact. 

I know the long and increasingly congested drive up I-95, through Providence to I-195 and then Route 28; 

The rising sense of excitement you feel as you cross the Bourne Bridge on to Cape Cod; 

The last-minute dash down the two-land stretch of Route 28 to Woods Hole and the ferry;

And the huge relief you feel when the guy in the red shirt at the guard house checks for your reservation and utters the final verdict in a thick Boston accent, “Lane Four, right behind the Blue Jeep. Stay with your vehicle.”  

To know the wonder of this Island is to go to the dock at Vineyard Haven, stand on the edge a few feet from where the cars drive off the ferry, and watch the wide-eyed expressions of wonder and excitement on a family’s face – especially the kids and the dog -- the instant their car offloads and hits the island, loaded down with kids’ bikes strapped to the back of the car, and boogie boards jammed in the back. 

Then look at the reverse: the look of resignation and sadness as the family vehicle boards the ferry and leaves the island: the kids are going back to the mainland, the school year, the Fall season, and the colder weather. 

As many of you know: Do not make a loose, gratuitous gesture to invite someone to Martha’s Vineyard.  Because, if you do they will always, actually show up.  We all say, “let’s have dinner sometime,” or “come up and see us some time.” Invite friends to Martha’s Vineyard, and the next you will hear is: “We’ll be there.  We’ve made our reservation.  We’re staying the full two weeks of your lease.” 

My family and I have been coming here for 54 years.  During that time, so much about this Island has stayed the same, but so much of our Nation and our world have changed.  In an ever-changing world, this place, which stubbornly refuses to accept a traffic light or a fast food restaurant, has been our island of stability and continuity. 

No matter what happens to us in our world over there, we know when we come back next year, there will be flying horses, the clam chowder on the ferry, the cheddar cheese bread and chocolate donuts at the bakery next to the post office, illumination night and fireworks. 

I realize this is why I love this Island so much.    

We’re renters.  I remember every house we’ve ever rented in downtown Oak Bluffs, Waban Park, Ocean Park, and on East Chop.   

The summer of 1962 my family rented the two-story white house on what is now the bustling corner of Dukes County Avenue and Swamp Way.  It’s still there, barely, empty and boarded up for years.  I don’t know how we fit so many family members from New York, Philadelphia, and Dayton, Ohio in that one little house. 

I was five years old then.  That summer, as my little sister and I occupied the sandbox in the backyard, Martin Luther King occupied a jail cell in Albany, Georgia, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes had just desegregated the University of Georgia, and James Meredith was fighting to desegregate the University of Mississippi.  In 1962, legal segregation existed in many states and cities in this country.  There was no Civil Right Act, no Voting Rights Act, and no Fair Housing laws. 

In 1968, we rented an even smaller house on Circuit Avenue that is now Island Canvas.  If any of you know Island Canvass, you will find it even harder to imagine my entire family from New York, Philadelphia and Dayton fitting in there too.  I was 10 going on 11.  We had a small black and white TV in the living room.  I still remember my draft-age cousins glued to the Democratic Convention, rooting for George McGovern because of his opposition to the Vietnam War.

In the summer of 1967 we rented the house at 7 Chestnut Avenue.  I remember that year because my sister went missing for about an hour. 

That same year, a great movie classic was released, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier.  It was Spencer Tracy’s last movie. 

In it a white college student meets an older black man at a university in Hawaii, falls in love with him, and brings him home to San Francisco to meet her parents for dinner.  The daughter wants her parents to approve of this controversial relationship in just a few hours, before they get married. The daughter’s parents, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, are shocked.  The movie was made in 1967, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states. 

I recently re-watched the movie, and was struck by an incredible exchange between Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, which I had forgotten, about the problem raising inter-racial children:

 “Have you given any thought to the problem you children are going to have?

Yes, and we’ll have children. 

Is that the way Joey feels?

She feels that every single one of our children will be President of the United States, and they’ll have colorful Administrations.”

This statement, from a fictional movie in 1967 was made in jest, a throwaway line, to reflect the naïve optimism about the strength and wonder of this country. 

But, in fact, at that moment, there was already a six-year-old boy who was the child of a white woman and an older black man who had met at a university in Hawaii and married.  And that young man is now the President of the United States. 

And, I can tell you first-hand he has a colorful Administration.

Fifty years ago it would have been unimaginable that in my lifetime, we would have a black president, or that I would be part of his Cabinet. 

This is one of the great things about our country.

We now have exactly 201 days left in President Obama’s Administration – yes, I am counting, so is he -- at which time I look forward to private life, and no longer getting up at 0500 to be at my desk at 0630. 

In this place, at this time, I can’t help but reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going after Barack Obama leaves office. 

Over the last 10 years, I’ve been on an incredible journey with Barack Obama.  I met him in June 2006.  He asked me to support his campaign for president in November 2006.  Something told me then that I was being asked to take a ride into history, and that I better get on board the bus.

Over the next two years, like numerous others I volunteered for his campaign and even canvassed door-to-door from Northwest Des Moines to West Philadelphia. 

I still remember the tension that existed at events on this island, in the summer of 2007, between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters.  (Just saying; we are all safe now.)

Four days ago I had the privilege of traveling with the President to Ottawa, where he addressed a joint session of the Canadian Parliament.  It was one of the best speeches I’ve heard him give, at the conclusion of which the Canadian Parliament chanted “four more years.”

People are now beginning to write the Obama legacy.  Though we still have our problems, I believe the Obama presidency will be recalled, not just for his many tangible achievements in office, but as a time in which America rose to new heights as an open, inclusive and diverse society.

In 2008, 69 million people voted to elect Barack Obama president – the largest number of votes ever cast for a one person in the history of this country. 

There are many other things about our world today that were unimaginable 50 years ago. 

There are also things about our world 50 years ago that are unimaginable today.       

Fifty years ago my father took my sister and me on a public tour of the U.S. Capitol building.  We did something then we could never do today, in this post 9/11 world.  We parked our car in a public parking lot just a few feet from the steps to the Eastern front of the Capitol building.  Like the White House and many other government buildings today, the Capitol is now a fortress, surrounded by lots of security. 

Fifty years ago aviation security was a fraction of what it is today.

We live in a world today in which we must guard against, degrade and destroy, terrorists and terrorist organizations intent on attacking our homeland. 

We must and we will take the fight to terrorist organizations overseas that are plotting to kill our citizens. 

But, the terrorist threat to our homeland has evolved.  We are no longer focused solely on potential terrorist-directed attacks from overseas.  We must also prevent terrorist-inspired plots on our homeland, by those who live among us and self-radicalize toward violence. 

As the FBI Director puts it, our mission now is to find the needle in the haystack, and the piece of hay in the haystack before it becomes a needle. 

In this environment, the terrorist may strike with little or no notice, in places difficult to anticipate -- Orlando, San Bernardino, Chattanooga.

And, in this environment, the American people need to know that there are a lot of law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security officials working hard to keep you safe and protect your homeland.

In these efforts, we must not forget who we are as a Nation. 

I like to tell audiences that I can build you a perfectly secure city, but it will look like a prison. 

I can put you on a perfectly secure commercial flight, but you wouldn’t want to ride on it, because you will be wearing no clothes, will have no carry-on or checked luggage, no food, and no freedom to leave your seat. 

I can install for you a perfectly cyber-secure email system, but you will be limited in that system to a conversation with only about 10 people, with no access to the internet and the larger world around you.

We can build more walls, install more screening devices, surveil and interrogate a lot more people, and make everybody suspicious of those different from ourselves.  But go too far, and it will cost us who we are a Nation of people who cherish our privacy, our freedoms, our religions, and our diversity.    

National security and homeland security involve striking a balance between basic, physical security on the one hand, and the law, the freedoms and the values we cherish as Americans on the other. 

Those of us involved in national security must be the guardians of one as much as the other.

Yet, something is happening now in this country that should concern all Americans of good will. 

In our public dialogue, we now hear questions about someone’s suitability for office based on religion, suitability to be an impartial judicial officer based on immigrant heritage, calls to ban immigrants from this country based on religion, and an intolerance for dissent.  Today’s dialogue would have been unimaginable just one year ago.  

Those of us who know who know our history, our laws, our Constitution and our values must respond. 

Every Morehouse Man knows the words “there comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

This is not a political appeal.  This is an appeal to Americans as Americans.     

History teaches us that dangerous, overheated rhetoric has consequences. 

History teaches us that fear, recrimination, suspicion and prejudice breed government overreach.

Martin Luther King, who visited this island in the 1960s, was the subject of FBI surveillance in the 1960s. 

Professor Charles V. Hamilton, who for years has spent summers on this island, who co-authored the book “Black Power” with Stokely Carmichael in 1966, was at one time suspected by own government of being a dangerous subversive.

During the height of the Red Scare in 1949, my own grandfather, sociologist Charles S. Johnson, was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee to deny he was a member of the Communist Party, and to defend the patriotism of the American Negro.

Those of us who know the lessons of history should learn from on them. 

Those of us who don’t know the mistakes of history are bound to repeat them. 

Following the Age of Obama, it would be tragic if we retreated to a period of fear, suspicion and prejudice.      

We cannot let that happen, and I do not believe that will happen.

In this country, there are setbacks, but the arc of history has always pointed in the direction of progress -- and toward a more perfect union. 

Seven years after my grandfather testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he wrote an essay for the New York Times in which he said “Faith in the ultimate strength of the democratic philosophy and the code of the nation as a whole has always been stronger than the impulse to despair.”  That was 60 years ago.

One month later, my grandfather was dead.  He died a second class citizen in fact and in law.  He did not live to see the products of the civil rights movement that was taking flight just as he died.  He would not be part of the first Johnson family vacation on this island six years later. 

But, I think Dr. Johnson would be impressed if he were here today.

In this speech I’ve talked about things now that were incomprehensible them. 

I’m told that the House Un-American Activities Committee held its hearings in Room 311 of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. This is the same room in which the House Homeland Security Committee holds its hearings today. 

Sixty-seven years ago, my grandfather likely testified in that hearing room to defend his patriotism; the week after next his grandson will testify in that same room to explain what the U.S. government is doing to defend our Nation.

I think grandad would be proud.

Always have faith.  Never lose hope.

God bless you. God bless America. 

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Last Published Date: July 3, 2016
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