An Immigrant's Road to a More Perfect Union
Remarks of Janet Thompson Jackson
U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
March 24, 2017
An Immigrant’s Road to a More Perfect Union
I first want to thank the chair of the naturalization committee, Mr. Pedro Irigonegaray, for giving me this opportunity to speak to our newest U.S. citizens in this historic space. It is an honor to be here and an honor to share this momentous life occasion with you.
I wonder how each of you would describe yourselves. You may say that you are a parent, teacher, writer, soccer player, a daughter or a son. Now that you have taken the oath of U.S. citizenship there’s an addition to your identity. For the first time you also can say, “I am an American citizen.”
What does that mean – to be an American citizen? Let me first say what I think being an American DOES NOT mean. Being an American citizen does not depend on the color of your skin, or the religion you practice or choose not to practice, or your gender or sexual orientation, whether you have a disability, or even whether English is your first language.
Being an American citizen really has nothing to do with your physical characteristics or any personal other preferences. None of those things make you any more or less American.
I think that more than anything else, being an American citizen is an ideal -- a standard that we strive toward. There are many standards or goals that we as Americans strive to achieve or embody, like justice and equality, freedom and liberty, the pursuit of happiness. But I’d like to lift up the ideal that we find in the very first phrase of our Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union…”
I want to talk for a few minutes about the ideal of forming that more perfect Union and our road to achieving that ideal. It is a road that you are now on, not as simply an observer or a passenger, but as one of the drivers. You now have the opportunity, the privilege, indeed the responsibility, to fully participate in this great American experiment of forming our more perfect Union because this experiment is ongoing. We have a long way to go and you, each one of you, can and should help to navigate our route. You can help show the way.
What you already know, and what you will now experience as U.S. citizens is the realization that this road to our more perfect Union can be a very bumpy road. It can be filled with giant potholes that sometimes seem to swallow us up. Sometimes the road goes up hills that seem too high to climb. And sometimes this road to our more perfect Union seems, at times, to take a U-turn. For some Americans, it may seem as though we take a step back for every two steps forward.
We have faced these challenges throughout the history of our great nation – ever since we took that first step on this road. We have had to pivot and make corrections along the way. Many of those moments have been magnificent. This building and its exhibits stand as witnesses to courage, perseverance, hope and justice.
Ranger Ekong spoke about the history of this building and the story that is embedded in its walls. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education case was a place on our road where we as a nation made a turn, made a correction that helped to move us closer to our more perfect Union. At a time when being an American was synonymous with whiteness, Brown caused a major shift in our collective consciousness and it led to other momentous turns in the road, such as civil rights laws that changed the landscape of our society. All of those turns brought us a little closer to that American ideal of a more perfect Union. This work, as we know, continues today.
You will leave this historic building today with your expanded identity, as U.S. citizens. As you drive the roads of this great country and hike its beautiful trails, I encourage you to pay attention to the crooked paths you take, the bumpy roads, and notice the U-turns and backtracking you sometimes have to endure to get to your destination. When you notice those things I hope that you also remember two things.
First, I hope you remember that our path as Americans to our more perfect Union has similar twists and turns. And, second, I hope you remember that we travel on this road together, you and I, indeed, all of us. Together we travel with shared commitment, perseverance, and faith, in both the blessings and the potential of America. And, together, we will continue to move closer to our more perfect Union. Congratulations on becoming U.S. citizens. I’ll see you on the road.