Remarks delivered on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary
of the Fall of the Berlin Wall
At the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
“Once in a lifetime,” the poet Seamus Haney writes, “the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.”
These are the inspiring words in the Freedom Center film, “The Struggle Continues,” which I have returned to again and again for hope, for courage and for stamina.
Surely there are few events in history which demonstrate how “the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme” more emphatically than the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
It is altogether fitting that we are here today to commemorate that historic event at the Freedom Center.
The Freedom Center’s mission is simple and profound: “We tell the story of freedom’s heroes from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times in order to inform and inspire all of us to take steps for freedom in our own life today.”
This year, we are celebrating the Freedom Center’s 10th anniversary. We have done much during the past decade to fulfill our mission. We have hosted millions of visitors, including over 400,000 students on school visits. We share with them the history of the fight for freedom and encourage them to reflect on how the values embedded in that fight--values of standing up for what you believe in, of never giving up, of respecting other people--can influence their lives today, whether that might be confronting bullying in a schoolyard or just being a good friend.
Our International Freedom Conductor Award events, the first occurring before we even opened in 1999 when we honored Rosa Parks, to the most recent, when we honored Presidents Nelson Mandela and President Lech Walesa—each of these events put us in touch with the lives of freedom heroes in ways which can inspire us to be at our best as we confront issues of freedom and seek to help one another in our own lives today.
I feel sure that President Walesa’s courageous leadership of the Solidarity Movement in Poland helped fire the courage and commitment of the hundreds of thousands of East Germans who protested on the streets of Leipzig and other cities of East Germany as the irrepressible momentum for freedom built in October and November of 1989. And who knows how many were inspired by the immortal words Nelson Mandela uttered in the docket at the Rivonia Trial in April, 1964: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” These words, too perhaps, touched the minds and hearts of many of those brave souls in East Germany who plotted, marched, and risked their own lives and, in some cases, lost their lives, to bring down that Wall.
This we are certain of--we rise on the shoulders of others, heroes from the era of the Underground Railroad to today as we seek the courage and the stamina to live our lives, being faithful to the highest values.
The Freedom Center’s mission is to showcase those lives and what they mean for us today.
Recently, the Freedom Center has launched important new initiatives to advance the cause of Freedom today.
We are the home of the only museum-quality exhibit in the world illuminating the horror of contemporary slavery. Thousands of visitors have told us that the knowledge they have gained from this exhibit is leading them to action. We have partnered with the U.S. State Department to create a website that will bring to life the stories of heroes from around the world who have fought against human trafficking, allowing us to share the inspiration and learning to be gained from their lives around the world.
I find it especially appropriate that we are here today to commemorate the courage of the men and women who led the transforming movement which brought this Wall down. We need the encouragement and the hope that this provides. Why? Because we face many walls today. Some walls are physical, like the one separating Israel and Palestine. But many more of the walls—indeed the tallest walls, the hardest walls to breach--are not physical walls at all. They are ideological walls; walls created by misunderstanding, by the unwillingness to view a situation through other people’s eyes; walls created by viewing people who are different than we are as some “other,” as people unworthy of our respect, of our time; or, in the worst of cases, unworthy even of their lives.
The Freedom Center’s mission is to help us break down these walls--to do it by sharing stories of inspiration like the Underground Railroad story itself, or stories of Nelson Mandela’s life which are now embedded in a new exhibit at the Freedom Center showcasing touch points in his heroic life.
I believe the Fall of the Berlin Wall can give us hope and stamina and courage as we face challenges that often seem to go beyond our ability to cope with. These challenges are emblazoned on the front pages of our newspapers and the lead-in to nightly news programs. They range from the sad and dangerous unraveling of our relations with the Russian Federation to the bloody disorder in the Middle East to fissions in our own country revealed in Ferguson, Missouri. Yet, in the face of all these challenges, there lies hope and lessons to be drawn from what we celebrate today. For, above all, the fall of the Berlin Wall and people’s brave and decades-long quest for freedom which led to it, is a vivid, hope-fueling demonstration of what is possible, of the imperative to never give up.
May this inspire us in the fights for Freedom that continue today.
The fight to tear down walls of misunderstanding and disrespect, differences which all too often become the basis for regarding a person of a different ideology or nation or faith or race as almost inhuman. These are walls we must breach by recognizing our common humanity, our common rights which as we avow in our Declaration of Independence (and virtually every Nation does in one way or another in their own constitutions) include the unalienable God-given rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit Of Happiness. These are words to not just admire and utter piously, but to act on.
It is the Mission of the Freedom Center to convert the HOPE for Freedom into ACTION to achieve Freedom, by building awareness of the challenges to Freedom and providing a forum for learning and dialogue that will inspire, guide and motivate us to take the necessary action to overcome these challenges in our own lives.
As we say to our visitors as they leave: "If not you, then who; If not now, then when?"
The world, the society, the city we live in demands and deserves no less from us who can make a difference.