Idaho’s Labrador urges black leaders to focus on hope, not bitterness

Idaho GOP Congressman Raul Labrador said Sunday on national TV that his personal story affirms that the American Dream is alive and well. Labrador was a panelist as NBC’s “Meet the Press” marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Labrador criticized African-American leadership for “trying to get the community to think that everything is hopeless and without a future…. And what we need to do is tell them that they can succeed.”

Host David Gregory began by noting Labrador’s birth to a single mother in Puerto Rico, his joining the Mormon Church, his enrollment in military school and practice of immigration law. Photos of Labrador in his youth and with his late mother appeared during the segment.

“I would argue that you would argue the American dream is alive and well for people like yourself,” said Gregory.

Said Labrador: “I would. And it saddens me actually to hear some of the things that I’m hearing here, because I think the American dream is alive. I was born four years after the March on Washington. I was born to a single mother who lost her job because she got pregnant by me, who decided to give me life. But the most important thing that she decided is that she was going to give me a good life.

“I didn’t go to military school when I was a young man because my mother was rich. I went to military school because she decided to sacrifice. She decided to go without some things in her life so she could put me in a military school. Then she couldn’t afford that anymore, so she put me in another private school.

“And eventually, when she wanted to move to the mainland, she decided to put me in a bilingual school because she thought that the only way I would be successful in life is by gaining an education, by being better educated, by learning English. I remember when we moved to the United States, she told me something that was so significant in my life.

“She said, ‘In private, we can speak Spanish. But when you’re in public, you need to speak English because I want you to speak English to the best of your ability.’ These are things that she thought about. I spent the last 24 hours, I watched Martin Luther King’s speech three times over the last 24 hours. And it was fantastic.

“And the rhetoric that he used, the words that he used, and the message that he used was the message of hope. And unfortunately, what I’ve been hearing from your panelists is not a message of hope. It’s a message of despair. And I think we need our leadership to actually be more hopeful.”

While several of the program’s guests said much has been accomplished, they argued America remains considerably short of the aims outlined in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the most famous moment of the march’s 3-hour program.

Among those raising concerns about economic inequality and access to education were the Rev. Al Sharpton, Newark Mayor and U.S. Senate nominee Cory Booker, Pulitzer Prize winners Doris Kearns Goodwin and Sheryl WuDunn, and Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis, who spoke at the march at age 23 and is the only surviving speaker among 10 at the podium in 1963.

Labrador replied to those critics in a second segment:

“We’re still the greatest nation on the earth. If you listen to what Martin Luther King talked about, he talked about making sure that we were not bitter about what was happening in America, but that we had hope. It was a beautiful speech. And I think that the leadership, or the African American leadership needs to start thinking about that hope that Martin Luther King gave us instead of trying to get the community to think that everything is hopeless and without a future. I think when we tell our young people that in America they cannot succeed anymore, you will see more and more young people not succeeding. And what we need to do is tell them that they can succeed.”

Labrador appeared on “Meet the Press” from a studio in Salt Lake City. He has been on the show a half-dozen times in his 2 1/2 years in Congress.

Louisiana’s Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, an Indian-American, said his life story also shows the dream of equal opportunity is alive.

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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