Publisher’s Note: Yankton, S.D., journalist Brian Hunhoff gave the keynote speech last Friday at a Sioux Falls naturalization ceremony for new citizens from 40 different countries. Following is an edited version of his remarks.
It’s one of the greatest honors of my life to be here with the 237 men and women completing the journey to this special day.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I was born on a farm 60 miles from here. That means my citizenship came easy. It was a birthright. The same is true of most U.S. citizens. Just six percent are naturalized. You took the path less traveled and became Americans the hard way.
It’s not an easy process. Not a fast process. Most of you worked and waited years for this day. You became Americans through sacrifice, determination and your vision of a better life. As such, you’re unlikely to take this blessing of citizenship lightly.
And it is a blessing. America means equal opportunity and pursuit of happiness. America means rich and poor have the same rights. We support truth, justice and the rule of law. And no one in America – not even the President – is above that law.
America’s greatest achievements are not skyscrapers or jets. Our strength lies in our compassion, in our communities, where our people care for one another; where neighbors help neighbors – and strangers – in times of need.
America is big cities and small towns; cornfields and main streets; veterans and nurses; teachers and truck drivers; factory workers, farmers and firefighters.
America is working one place 40 years or changing jobs every year if you want to. America is open government and voting and running for office if you want to.
America is a nation of immigrants, multi-cultural by design. We should be a celebration of diversity. America should mean respect and dignity for all people. America is red, white and blue. We’re also black, white and brown.
America is Democrats and Republicans and Independents. America is any religion or no religion – the right to pray freely or not pray at all.
America means liberty to be who we want to be and fighting for that freedom if need be. It means standing up to bullies who disguise bigotry and cruelty as patriotism.
America is a place we rise above that which separates us to build a stronger nation on that which unites us.
America is also hard to please. We like to complain. Polls show many think our country is on the wrong track. We sometimes have to stop and look around to remember we would not want to live anywhere else.
Our leaders in America disappoint us at times. I speak out when that happens, but I never lose hope and pride in our country. We’re not defined by a single leader. We’re bigger and better than one person or moment in time.
We can bring our polarized country closer together by rediscovering shared values like freedom and equality. Those principles are more important than partisan beliefs that divide us.
I told a friend I was writing a speech called ‘Journey to America the Great.’ He laughed and said, “I’d call it ‘America the Corrupt’ or ‘America the Greedy’.”
Well, America is not perfect. But America is great. And we’re better than we were. Slavery was one of this country’s original sins. Horrible treatment of American Indians was another. We moved forward and became better by admitting our mistakes and not forgetting those shameful chapters in American history.
As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”
My cynical friend’s father was a WWII veteran, so he knows America is capable of greatness. Next year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote in this country – Aug. 18, 1920. That was another time we became better than we were. Just imagine how much the combined intelligence of our nation’s voters increased that day! ☺
Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon was another great moment … Rosa Parks refusing to give a white man her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955. That isolated moment of courage has been making a difference ever since.
America has a great big heart and a strong heartbeat. We still inspire democracy and human rights in other countries. We still enjoy the liberty to make our own American dreams come true.
Congratulations on becoming United States citizens. Thank you for taking the journey to this day. It’s a supreme achievement. We’re proud of you.
I hope all 237 of you will be active citizens. We need people with your perseverance and fresh perspectives to help solve America’s problems. We need your courage and commitment to help us keep our flame of freedom burning bright.
God bless you and God bless America the beautiful, which has been great since 1776.
Our country became even greater and more beautiful today, because of you.