Deftly bridging the virtual distance to engage his audience, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker kept the 250 members of the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy community spellbound as he spoke passionately over Zoom about honoring Black history as part of American history, the power of connection, and the importance of committing to the nation’s future.
Booker was a guest speaker in a series of online events sponsored by SCH celebrating Black history and the values of equality and social justice. Leaning closely into his computer screen as if to speak intimately with each viewer, Booker explained how his parents encouraged him to study Black history, as part of American history, in order to “activate me into being committed to this country and to the call and the cause of this country.” Booker expressed hope that, during this month, as we look back at history, we will be inspired in the present to take action in realizing our country’s ideals.
Recalling Martin Luther King Jr.’s words that we are all caught in an “inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Booker explained that he came to understand that his own personal story is directly linked to that history, specifically the 1965 voting rights march through Selma, Alabama, led by activist and recently deceased congressman John Lewis, in which marchers were viciously beaten by state troopers as they tried to cross a bridge on the way from Selma to Montgomery.
A white lawyer viewing that march and the beatings on TV was moved to take action against racial injustice, and it was this lawyer, explained Booker, who helped his own family secure a home in what was then a segregated neighborhood in New Jersey when they moved from the south. “I am a United States senator because in 1965, years before I was born, on a bridge in Alabama, people stood up for their country and were beaten down for its ideals. And even though they didn’t succeed that day, just by their act of heroism, that spirit literally leapt a 1,000 miles away and changed the heart of just one man on a couch in New Jersey who decided to do something for the cause of the country, and he would go on to change the destiny of my family and set me on a pathway to where I am today.”
Booker’s talk was impassioned but also sprinkled with humor. In the Q & A, when one of the students asked what advice he’d give his younger self, the bald senator quipped, “Enjoy your afro while you have it.” He then followed with a more serious exhortation, recalling his own initial fear of public speaking: ”The things you’re afraid of, you shouldn’t avoid; you should lean into your fear because that’s where you’ll find your greatest fortune. Your fears are road maps of where you should go.”
Booker, a vegan, ended his talk with a discussion of his work on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. His goal is to fix the country’s “broken food policies” that contribute to our nation’s rampant heart disease, diabetes, and other health crises. “Nobody realizes that every day with our forks we are participating in a system of profound injustice,” says Booker. Describing his role as the “skunk at the party,” he said he intends to attack a lot of sacred cows and expects a backlash but that he has come to understand that “the call of history is to make waves and bend the arc of history more toward justice.”
A recording of the school’s conversation with Senator Booker can be found on the SCH YouTube channel.
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