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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
February 19, 2015
Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy
2:00 P.M. CST
THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! (Applause.) Everybody have a seat. Everybody have a seat. Settle down. Also known as “Chiberia”!
THE PRESIDENT: It is good to be home. (Applause.) Even — even in February. (Laughter.) It’s always been a dream of mine to be the first President to designate a national monument in subzero conditions. (Laughter.)
I want to thank your outstanding principal, D’Andre Weaver — (applause) — for his warm hospitality — and his adorable daughter — (laughter) — and wonderful wife. I had a chance to talk to D’Andre, and one of the youngest principals maybe ever in Chicago, and has just done extraordinary work. And the students and teachers who are here, way to go — because you guys are doing great. (Applause.) We’re so proud of you.
I want to recognize some other people who braved the cold to join us. Governor Bruce Rauner is here. (Applause.) Our Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, is here. (Applause.) Senator Mark Kirk is here. (Applause.) Outstanding members of the House of Representatives — Robin Kelly, Bobby Rush, Mike Quigley, Bob Dold. (Applause.) We’ve got our Director of the National Parks Service, Jon Jarvis. (Applause.) And we have our mayor, Mr. Rahm Emanuel. (Applause.)
Now, before Rahm was a big-shot mayor, he was an essential part of my team at the White House during some very hard times for America. And I relied on his judgment every day and his smarts every day, and his toughness every day. And along with many of the local leaders and members of Congress, like Robin, who are this afternoon, Rahm hasn’t just fought for a National Park in Pullman, he’s fought for new opportunity and new jobs in Pullman, and for every Chicagoan, in every neighborhood, making sure every single person gets the fair shot at success that they deserve. And I could not be prouder of him and the extraordinary service that he’s provided.
Now, it’s always fun coming home. But this is special for me. This exit right over here, either 111th or 115th — depending on what was going on that day — I took that just about every day for about three years. I drove by this site every day on my way to Holy Rosary Church — (applause) — where my first office of my first job in Chicago was. Right across from the park. This was Mendel then. (Applause.) This is the neighborhood where I made lifelong friends. This is the area where I became a man. I learned so much about love and work and loyalty and friendship.
And to be able to come back here today, a place where I cut my teeth in getting involved in politics and organizing; a place where my mother-in-law worked at what was then Heritage/Pullman Bank — that means a lot. The only difference is, back then, in weather like this, I had to shovel out my own car — (laughter) — and chip off my own ice, and try to warm up the car and stay warm, because the car didn’t heat up real well. And I had a pretty raggedy coat. So I travel here with a little more comfort and better transportation. (Laughter.) But it sure brings back a lot of good memories.
But I’m not here just to reminisce. (Child screams.) Yes! (Laughter.) I’m here because next year is the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. For a century, rangers, and interpreters, and volunteers and visitors have kept alive what the writer Wallace Stegner once called “the best idea we ever had” — our belief that the country’s most special places should belong not just to the rich, not just to the powerful, but belong to everybody — not just now, but for all time.
Conservation is a truly American idea. The naturalists and industrialists and politicians who dreamt up our system of public lands and waters did so in the hope that, by keeping these places, these special places in trust — places of incomparable beauty, places where our history was written — then future generations would value those places the same way as we did. It would teach us about ourselves, and keep us grounded and keep us connected to what it means to be American. And it’s one of our responsibilities, as Americans, to protect this inheritance and to strengthen it for the future.
And that’s why I’ve used my authority to set aside more public lands and waters than any President in history. (Applause.) And that’s why, starting next month, we’re going to encourage every American to “Find Your Park,” because chances are, there’s one closer than you think.
And that’s why, starting this fall, we’re going to help a new generation of Americans experience our God-given grandeur by giving every fourth-grader in America what we’re calling an “Every Kid in a Park” pass — a pass good for free admission to all public lands, for you and your family, for an entire year. (Applause.) We want every fourth-grader to have the experience of getting out and discovering America. We want them to see the outside of a classroom too; see all the places that make America great. Put down the smartphone for a second. Put away the video games. Breathe in some fresh air and see this incredible bounty that’s been given to us.
No matter who you are, no matter where you live, our parks and our monuments, our lands, our waters — these places are the birthright of all Americans.
And today, right here in Chicago, I’m using my powers as President to announce America’s three newest national monuments, places that reflect our national history and our national heritage. (Applause.)
Now, first, we’re announcing a new park in my home state — before I was adopted by Illinois — my home state of Hawaii. And the Honouliuli was once an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Going forward, it’s going to be a monument to a painful part of our history so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
Then there’s Browns Canyon, Colorado, which is an outdoor paradise with world-class fly-fishing, rafting, hiking, wildlife. And from now on, it will be protected so that future generations can enjoy this land without threatening the things that make it so special.
And there’s a reason why we’re here on the South Side, right next to the neighborhood known as Pullman. It’s not as warm as it is in Hawaii, and the views aren’t as spectacular as in Colorado. But what makes Pullman special is the role it’s played in our history. And the mayor talked a little bit about this. This place has been a milestone in our journey toward a more perfect union.
More than 150 years ago, a carpenter named George Pullman moved to Chicago from New York. And he didn’t start out with much, but he built his railway car company into one of the largest of its day. And as part of his empire, he built an entire town from scratch. George Pullman wasn’t just the namesake of the place where his workers lived, he was also their boss, and their landlord, and their mayor, and their superintendent, and their sheriff.
Now, Pullman lived out America’s promise. An extraordinary entrepreneur. He lived out the notion that each of us deserves the chance to transcend circumstances of our birth, and make of our lives what we will. But for all his success, Mr. Pullman and the other tycoons of that period, the Gilded Age, they weren’t always that keen about making sure their workers were able to live out the same promise.
So in 1893, a recession struck America. Pullman slashed his workers’ pay, some saw their wages fall dramatically. Pullman didn’t take a pay cut himself and he didn’t lower the rents in his company town. So his workers organized for better pay and better working and living conditions. A strike started here in Pullman, and it spread across the country. Federal troops were called to restore order; and in the end, more than 30 workers were killed.
Eventually, they returned to their jobs. But the idea they had sparked, the idea of organizing and collectively bargaining, couldn’t be silenced. (Applause.) Could not be silenced. And so just six days after the strike ended, an act of Congress established Labor Day — a day to honor working men and women of America. And gradually, our country would add protections that we now take for granted: a 40-hour work week, the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplace conditions, and the right to organize for higher wages and better opportunities. (Applause.)
So this site is at the heart of what would become America’s Labor Movement — and as a consequence, at the heart of what would become America’s middle class. And bit by bit, we expanded this country’s promise to more Americans. But too many still lived on the margins of that dream.
The white workers who built Pullman’s rail cars won new rights. But those rights were not extended to the black porters who worked on these cars — the former slaves, and sons and grandsons who made beds and carried luggage and folded sheets and shined shoes. And they worked as many as 20 hours a day on less than three hours’ sleep just for a couple dollars a day. Porters who asked for a living wage, porters who asked for better hours or better working conditions were told they were lucky to have a job at all. If they continued to demand better conditions, they were fired. It seemed hopeless to try and change the status quo.
But a few brave men and women saw things differently. And one summer night in 1925, porters packed a hall in Harlem, and a young man there named A. Philip Randolph led the meeting. (Applause.) And what A. Philip Randolph said was, “What this is about,” he said, “is making you master of your economic fate.” Making you master of your economic fate. And so he and others organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters around the strategy that he would employ throughout his life: “If you stand firm and hold your ground, in the long run you’ll win.”
That was easier said than done. Over the years, Brotherhood leaders and supporters were fired, they were harassed. But true to A. Philip Randolph’s call, they stood firm, they held their ground. And 12 years to the day after A. Philip Randolph spoke in that hall in Harlem, they won, and Pullman became the first large company in America to recognize a union of black workers. (Applause.)
And this was one of the first great victories in what would become the Civil Rights Movement. It wouldn’t be the last victory. It was his union that allowed A. Philip Randolph to pressure President Roosevelt to desegregate the defense industry. It was those Pullman porters who gave the base by which A. Philip Randolph could convince President Truman to desegregate the Armed Forces. It was those porters who helped lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott, who were the central organizers of the March on Washington.
And on the day of that historic march, under the shadow of the President who had freed the slaves, A. Philip Randolph, who was now about 40 years older, a little grayer, but still standing just as firm — it was A. Philip Randolph who was the first to speak at that March on Washington. “We are the advanced guard,” he said, “of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.”
“A massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” And that’s not just the story of a movement, that’s the story of America. Because as Americans, we believe that workers’ rights are civil rights. (Applause.) That dignity and opportunity aren’t just gifts to be handed down by a generous government or by a generous employer; they are rights given by God, as undeniable and worth protecting as the Grand Canyon or the Great Smoky Mountains.
And that’s why, throughout our history, we’ve marched not only for jobs, but also for justice; not just for the absence of oppression, but for the presence of opportunity. And ultimately, that wasn’t just for African Americans any more than the original Pullman union was just for white workers. Eventually, that principle would be embraced on behalf of women, and Latinos, and Native Americans; for Catholics and Jews and Muslims; for LGBT Americans; for Americans with mental and physical disabilities. That’s the idea that was embodied right here.
That’s why we have acted to give our citizens a measure of protection from the cruelties of fate with Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and, yes, the Affordable Care Act — things that we now take for granted or we will take for granted someday. It’s why we keep fighting to give every citizen a fair shot with schools and colleges and the Internet — tools we need in order to go as far as our efforts will take us, tools that the young people here are going to need so that they then can lead this great country of ours.
It’s why we keep fighting to help working families feel more secure in a constantly changing world with child care and equal pay, a higher minimum wage, and paid sick days — something I know that’s on the ballot here in Chicago. It’s why we have to keep fighting to treat these issues like the economic priorities they are. But they’re also ideas about justice and fairness and the worth of every individual.
That’s the story of this place — that, together, we can do great things that we cannot accomplish alone. That’s why today I’m designating Chicago’s Pullman District as America’s newest national monument. (Applause.) I want this younger generation, I want future generations to come learn about their past. Because I guarantee you there are a lot of young people right here in Chicago, just a few blocks away, living in this neighborhood who may not know that history.
I want future generations to know that while the Pullman porters helped push forward our rights to vote, and to work, and to live as equals, their legacy goes beyond even that. These men and women without rank, without wealth or title, became the bedrock of a new middle class. These men and women gave their children and grandchildren opportunities they never had.
Here in Chicago, one of those porter’s great-granddaughter had the chance to go to a great college and a great law school, and had the chance to work for the mayor, and had the chance to climb the ladder of success and serve as a leader in some of our cities’ most important institutions. And I know that because today she’s the First Lady of the United States of America, Michelle Obama. (Applause.)
So without this place, Michelle wouldn’t be where she was. There’s a reason why I’ve got one of the original copies of the program for the March on Washington, a march for jobs and justice, with A. Philip Randolph’s name right there as the first speaker, framed in my office. Because without Pullman, I might not be there. Of course without Michelle, I’d definitely not be there. (Laughter.) Whoever she married would be there. (Laughter and applause.)
So to the young people here today, that’s what I hope you take away from this place. It is right that we think of our national monuments as these amazing vistas, and mountains, and rivers. But part of what we’re preserving here is also history. It’s also understanding that places that look ordinary are nothing but extraordinary. The places you live are extraordinary, which means you can be extraordinary. You can make something happen, the same way these workers here at Pullman made something happen. (Applause.)
That’s not to tell you that life is always going to be fair, or even that America will always live up to its ideals. But it is to teach us that no matter who you are, you stand on the shoulder of giants. You stand on the site of great historic movements. And that means you can initiate great historic movements by your own actions.
Generations before you fought and sacrificed, and some lost their jobs, and some lost their lives, to give you a better chance to be what A. Philip Randolph called the master of your fate. And I think all they’d ask for in return is that you take advantage of that, and when your time comes, you’ll fight just as hard to give somebody else that chance.
Because for all the progress that we’ve made — and we have made a lot of progress — our moral revolution is unfinished. And it’s up to each of us to protect that promise of America, and expand that promise of opportunity for all people. That long march has never be easy. This place, historic Pullman, teaches us we have to keep standing firm and together. That’s the story of who we are. That’s the story of our past. And I have no doubt that we will pass the torch from generation to generation so that it is the story of our future as well.
So thank you, everybody. Thank you, Chicago. Thank you, Pullman. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. (Applause.)
2:24 P.M. CST