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Remarks at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia

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Friday, February 19, 2010

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Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at Morehouse College
Atlanta, Georgia

Thank you for having me here today.

Dr. Robert Franklin just gave me the tour of Martin Luther King’s papers.

The legacy and history of Dr. King is familiar to every American, but it is still so moving to see the innermost thoughts of Dr. King written in his own hand.

It’s so fitting that these papers are housed at Morehouse, where Dr. King began his journey of higher education, and where, almost 25 years later, he would be eulogized by former Morehouse president Dr. Benjamin Mays.

This month—Black History Month—schoolchildren throughout the country will learn how Dr. King bent the moral arc of the universe towards justice. . . how he:

  • Led campaigns to integrate schools and lunch counters; and
  • Worked to ensure voting rights and equality under the law.

Dr. King’s work to overcome these political and legal obstacles is well known. But no less important to Dr. King’s vision of a just and equal society was his commitment to economic empowerment.

Recall that the last trip he ever made was to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers demanding better safety, better wages and better benefits.

Dr. King knew that this final battle for economic empowerment would be the toughest in the battle for full equality. He once said that, “It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job.”

And unfortunately, those words still resonate today.

While America’s overall unemployment stands at 9.7 percent, the jobless rate for African-Americans is 16.5 percent.

Today, too many African-American people are living with economic insecurity, living in broken communities and, seeing no light at the end of the tunnel.

Quite frankly, that was true before this economic crisis. And it’s even worse now. As it’s been said, America has caught a cold, but Black America has caught pneumonia.

Fixing this injustice is the great unfinished business of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

And let there be no doubt: putting people back to work is the number one priority of the Obama administration.

That’s what this past year has been all about. It’s what this coming year will be all about.

Now, I know that people are frustrated that the economy is not turning around quicker.

But it’s important to be mindful of where we have come from.

Early last year:

  • The economy was losing on average, 700,000 jobs a month.
  • And nearly $10 trillion in wealth had been lost in the stock market, which was on a steady downward spiral.

We were on the precipice of a second depression.

And this administration acted swiftly to Rescue, Rebuild and Restore our economy.

We worked to get lending flowing again, enacted measures to stem the tide of foreclosures in our housing market, and extended assistance to banks and financial institutions.

We also enacted the most sweeping economic recovery package in history: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Despite what this bill’s partisan critics might say, all the well-known private economic research firms agree that the Recovery Act has had a huge impact in staving off job losses and returning the economy to growth.

As the President has said, “These were not decisions that were popular or satisfying; these were decisions that were necessary.”

And partly as a result of these and other steps, we’re in a very different place today than we were a year ago.

But I know these tentative signs of improvement are cold comfort to the millions of Americans who are still out of work and trying to scrape together enough money to pay their mortgage or rent, buy food and send their kids to school.

We’ve got to keep working to create a sustainable economy that provides more opportunity for everyone.

But how?

Increasingly, we’ve got to look to places like Morehouse’s College EntrepreneurshipCenter.

Teaching entrepreneurship isn't just going to benefit Morehouse’s students.

It’s also going to radiate outward to create positive social change in African-American communities—because there is simply no better vehicle for job creation in America than entrepreneurship.

Over the last three decades, startups—firms less than five years old—have accounted for nearly all increased employment in the American private sector.

And if we can get more African-Americans building business, driving innovation and creating jobs, than we’re going to see a cycle of positive virtue that will make communities safer, more secure and more prosperous.

Right now, we've got a long way to go.

Consider that African-American men are one third as likely to be self-employed as white men.

We know that African-Americans are seriously underrepresented not only in corporate boardrooms, but in the upper echelons of fast-growing smaller companies.

This is a problem we’ve got to attack patiently and resolutely over time – and I think this administration is off to a good start.

We’ve been promoting entrepreneurship as a critical component of the nation’s economic recovery agenda.

Just in the past year, the administration has:

  • Worked to free up access to credit.
  • Increased guarantees on SBA small business loans which has helped loan volume jump by 60 percent; and
  • We’ve made vast investments in the type of science and technology research that has historically helped launch countless new businesses.

One of my goals at the Department of Commerce is to help African-American communities, businesses, and aspiring entrepreneurs understand that my department alone has a huge array of tools to help them.

For all the different things that the Commerce Department does—from protecting America's oceans and intellectual property to improving companies' efficiency and opening up markets—what we are really about is helping American businesses grow and create new jobs.

We are the one federal agency singularly equipped to help businesses at every point in their life cycle—from the birth of an idea, to starting a business with that idea, to finding markets once that idea has been transformed into a product or service.

If you've got a new invention, or innovation, our Patent and Trademark Office will make sure your intellectual property is protected.

If you need help with financing or consulting help on how to get a business started, we’ve got a Minority Business Development Agency that last year helped generate more than $2 billion in contracts and financing.

If you've got a factory, we have a Manufacturing Extension Partnership with experts who can come onto your shop floor and provide ideas to make your production line more efficient.

If you want to start selling your products abroad, we have commercial service officers on the ground in 77 countries around the world who will tap their local contacts to find you new customers.

These tools are available to any business that wants to use them, but under President Obama’s leadership, we are particularly focused on helping the small and medium-size businesses that create so many of our jobs.

Outreach to African-American communities to make them aware of these Commerce programs hasn’t always been there, but this is something we are working to change.

I know from experience that these tools offered by the Commerce Department can be a significant help to African-American communities.

At the same time, I know the challenges we're facing.

You don’t, overnight, simply overcome the educational, financial and other structural factors that limit African-American entrepreneurship and economic development.

But if I might borrow a line from Dr. Benjamin Mays, “The tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not disgrace to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for.”

“Not failure, but low aim, is a sin.”

So, let’s all rededicate ourselves to doing our part to complete Dr. King's work and to spread economic opportunity to every corner of America.

Thank you.