Vartan Gregorian Welcomes New Americans at JFK Library
to our Democracy newsletter
Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York, delivered the following remarks at a naturalization ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, on July 18, 2018.
My fellow immigrants, citizens, and Americans:
I previously participated in two similar events. The first being my own naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia where our nation’s independence and Constitution came into existence. Then, years later, I spoke to a group of new citizens at Monticello, in Virginia, where the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, built his home.
Today, I am honored to be here in Boston, at the John F. Kennedy Library, next to a harbor that welcomed so many immigrants in the nineteenth century, including the ancestors of the late John F. Kennedy.
President Kennedy knew firsthand that America was and continues to be a nation of immigrants. He wrote a book on the subject, entitled A Nation of Immigrants. Later, as the President of the United States, he was a constant champion of immigrants and refugees, never forgetting that he, too, came from a family of immigrants. He laid the foundation for the Immigration Act of 1965, which placed the American Dream within reach of people from every nation on earth.
I was deeply fortunate that the United States welcomed a multitude of international students to receive their higher education. While studying at Stanford, I met my wife. We were married and living in London the same year John F. Kennedy was elected. I will never forget that night. For hours, we followed the election returns from the U.S., putting coins into a radio to hear the latest dispatches from Radio Luxembourg. Because the election was so close, we used up all of our change.
We were “broke” newlyweds, but everything felt so terribly exciting — as if the future of the world was up for grabs. We were thrilled that such a gifted young man had been elected to the nation’s highest office, and we celebrated the fact that the election demonstrated that the U.S. had overcome yet another great obstacle, transcending a century of prejudice.
Let me explain. In the 1850s, a powerful political movement swept our country, urging politicians to restrict immigration. Their party was called the Know-Nothings. They particularly disliked Catholics and the Irish. In other words, the very ancestors of the President whose legacy is preserved in this library.
But, thank God, throughout our history, we have also had great leaders, idealists, and patriots who rejected the idea of a constricted America, defined by bloodlines, religion, and race.
For example in 1858, none other than Abraham Lincoln argued that America’s ideals were available to all who understood the principle set forth in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” All men. He reminded the newcomers to America that they have — as Lincoln put it — “a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.”
The founders of our nation did not claim that they had created a “more perfect union,” but rather they had created a framework and foundation for a just society, setting guiding principles for future generations. That is not to say that the ideals our country set forth were always upheld. Throughout our history men and women have fought bitterly, and occasionally violently, over the promise of America, its laws, and its institutions, and have sacrificed their lives to preserve this country. Like you, America did not and does not rest on its past laurels.
It moves forward, knowing its imperfections and limitations, yet always working to overcome them. Equality, justice, the supremacy of law, a representative government predicated on true democracy, the respect for the intrinsic worth of the individual and the acknowledgment of individual rights embedded in the Bill of Rights: these values must be taught, discussed and remembered time and time again. We have to know our history and the evolution of our republic, our legal, and economic systems as well as our cultural heritage.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 14th amendment, one of the most noteworthy additions to the Constitution, which bears a special significance for those gathered here today. It states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” It is thanks to that amendment, we are here today.
The declaration that “all men are created equal” was a revolutionary idea in 1776 and it still is. The emergence of the United State constituted a challenge to the world. Because ours was a new nation, founded upon the highest ideals of the Enlightenment, believing in the potential of human beings to build a free society in which the rule of law prevails, and no one is above the law.
President Kennedy understood that freedom is not simply a right, with it comes responsibility. Today we celebrate your citizenship, but we also ask you to accept the solemn obligations that citizenship brings. Today is a rite of passage. You will soon be a part of something bigger than yourself, the United States of America. That is what I felt when I was about to be sworn in as a citizen of the United States. Like you, I was full of joy, trepidation, and hope. I remember the tears in my eyes as I swore that I would “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”
It felt as if I were getting married again, and once more vowing my devotion “till death do us part.” As a citizen of the United States, I have tried to live up to the challenge JFK so famously issued to us and to the nation in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
So what can you, this country’s newest citizens, do for your adopted homeland? Challenge us and help us to do better. As citizens of this country we can — and we must — participate in the work of our democracy. That means undertaking a myriad of small actions, most of which do not take place on Election Day. Read, learn, listen to others, help your neighbors, speak out against injustice, and vote! Study our nation’s glorious past as well as its trials, tribulations, and tragedies. By doing so, you fulfill your rights and obligations as citizens.
Thomas Jefferson once described America as a “crusade against ignorance.” He believed that a nation could not be both ignorant and free. If that is true — and I believe it to be — then we must all seek knowledge, tolerance, and understanding.
Today, our history is a great source of comfort and inspiration in a complex and conflicted world. Studying it will help us recognize the difference between wisdom and ignorance, between the light at the end of a tunnel and the dangers of an oncoming train.
In my own quest for knowledge, I still feel amazed at my good fortune. I am a first-generation American, born in Tabriz, Iran. I came from a rich civilization with 2,500 years of history and culture. But as I journeyed from an empire to a republic, I began to understand the power of freedom and the rule of law and the protections provided by our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
In the process, I realized that becoming an American did not mean discarding my culture, my faith, and my identity. I came to be a part of America, not apart from America. I was glad that I was included.
I want to conclude with a few of the words from the address I gave at my own naturalization ceremony. “We know America is not perfect, but we see it as perfectible. For us, America is not just a past; it is also a future. It is not just an actuality — it is always a potentiality. America’s greatness lies in the fact that all its citizens, both new and old, have an opportunity to work for that potentiality, for its unfinished agenda.”
Here in this beautiful location by the sea that President Kennedy loved, I am reminded of a quotation often attributed to his contemporary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We came in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”
Again, my most sincere congratulations.