WASHINGTON, DC – House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (MD) spoke at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Breakfast today at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“Years ago, there was a powerful man who was born and raised not far from here. For years he studied and practiced his profession, and every day he grew a little in skill and in ambition, until one day, when he was at the height of his power, he sat down and wrote this: ‘The class of persons who had been imported as slaves [and] their descendants…are beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’
“We know a tremendous amount about Roger Taney, the man who wrote those words. We know his birthday. We can find the Maryland tobacco farm where he was born. We can look at his college grades and see that he graduated first in his class. We have volumes of his opinions as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, including the Dred Scott decision, from which I just read to you. We know the day of his death, the same day the State of Maryland abolished slavery.
“And we know what he looked like. We have photographs and portraits—and a life-sized statue. It sits next to Maryland’s State House, and over the years it’s turned green with age. Over those same years, Roger Taney’s words turned from the most respectable opinion to the ugliest slur. And for all those years, his statue has sat there, as if to remind us that words like his, and the hateful acts of generations of men and women like him, are a part of our history that can never be erased. We can’t wash away a single line or letter.
“But there is another history. It’s the story of slaves, not slaveowners. It’s the story of Africans making their way on the other side of the world and becoming, generation by generation, African Americans. It’s the story of the powerless waking up to their power.
“So much of that history comes to us through scraps: a half-excavated cabin; a bill of sale; a line in a will or a church record or a chronicle. So much of that history is lost—it’s the history we so rarely see. But we know, almost at the very beginning of it, that there was a man named Mathias de Sousa.
“We know that he came to America with the Jesuits in 1634 on a ship called the Ark. We know that he was a fur trader. We know that he once owned money and paid it back. He was, we think, the first black man to cast a vote in an American assembly.
“And we don’t know much else. We are sure that he voted; we don’t know which way, or what he said at the time, or if he had any idea that he was the first. He travelled with Jesuits; maybe he was a Catholic, and maybe he wasn’t. We can guess from his name that he came from Angola or the Kongo; but a guess is all we have. We have no idea what he looked like. Nine years after he comes into the record, he passes out of history again. It could be that he died; it could be that he took passage on a ship. From that point on, he is part of the history we don’t see.
“But the records are beyond doubt on one point: Mathias de Sousa was a free man. And he has his place in the half-seen history of millions who used their freedom to show that they were no one’s inferior, and millions more who kept their dignity even in chains, who fought and spoke up and sat in and marched until they were free.
“We know that astronomers have found new planets in the sky, without even seeing them—they looked for those planets’ pull on what they did see. The same power is in Mathias’s life, and the millions of half-seen lives that were as rich and purposeful as his. Those lives have their own gravity. They are the force that, in the words of Dr. King, bends the long arc of history toward justice.
“Tomorrow is their day, too. It is the day that they have made with us—so let us rejoice and be glad in it, because we have seen history moving in our lifetimes.
“On the other side of our State House, there’s another statue—a statue of Thurgood Marshall, the black man who helped take apart, brick by brick, the wall that Roger Taney helped build. I think those two will stand there, not far apart, as long as there’s a State House, saying that our story is full of both Taneys and Marshalls, of shame and self-sacrifice, of hate and of hope.
“But we know that history moves. And we know, even in dark times—we know which way it’s going.”