The following is the full transcript of the keynote address delivered by ACLU SoCal Executive Director Hector Villagra at the 2016 Bill of Rights Dinner on Sunday, November 13, 2016 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
On election night, as I put my nine-year-old daughter Sofia to bed, she was crying, asking what was going to happen. I didn’t know what to say—I hadn’t realized how much she had absorbed. Instinctively, I said, “Don’t worry. This is why I work for the ACLU.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I am deeply worried that a candidate has been elected president who made campaign promises that are un-American. But as I look out at all of you now, I feel even more proud, grateful, and inspired to be part of the ACLU.
This is what it will take. Coming together. Finding strength in each other. Uniting to face the difficult days ahead.
America is drifting into dangerous and uncharted waters. But I remind myself this is not the first time America has been carried by the currents of fear and hate. And I know America is not directionless.
We were taught as children to revere our democracy, but it’s the Bill of Rights that promises justice. It’s the Bill of Rights that says individuals have rights no one can take away. It’s the Bill of Rights that is our north star—that points the way forward.
The ACLU was founded in 1920 by a small group of women and men who fully believed in defending the Bill of Rights for everyone. Their vision ran completely counter to mainstream public opinion.
At that time, 130 years after its adoption, the Bill of Rights hadn’t been tested in the courts and its promise remained unfulfilled. Racial segregation was the law of the land—lynchings were not only commonplace but carried out by police. Thousands of immigrants had just been arrested for their “radical” views, brutalized and summarily deported. Women had just obtained the right to vote, but couldn’t serve on juries, could be fired for getting pregnant, and couldn’t open a bank account with their husband’s permission.
If that handful of social workers, activists and lawyers—who couldn’t fill a table here tonight—if they could summon the strength to fight for what’s right, I know we can, too.
I understand the distress people feel—I see it in their eyes, I hear it in their voices, and I feel it too—but I also see signs people are processing it and figuring out what to do.
On election night, so many Americans started looking for a way out that Canada’s immigration website crashed.
The next morning, after some needed rest and reflection, so many Americans started looking for a way to stay and fight that a different website crashed—the donation page of the ACLU.
> WATCH: ACLU SoCal Executive Director Hector Villagra deliver keynote address at the 2016 Bill of Rights Dinner
Throughout our history, the greatness of America has been found in the individual human beings—just like us—willing to stand for justice for everyone.
This has always begun with the powerful words “I disagree”—uttered defiantly to our neighbors, our media, our lawmakers, and, yes, even our president.
The right to dissent is enshrined in the First Amendment. In his last speech Martin Luther King called it “the right to protest for right.” And it is the engine of change and progress in our nation’s history—always has been—always will be.
The prevailing views that justified slavery and Jim Crow—that denied women the right to vote and the right to an abortion—that prohibited marrying someone of a different race or the same sex—they were all slowly eroded and eventually toppled because individuals had the audacity to say, “No more!”
The ACLU has always stood with those courageous enough to rise up and speak out against injustice.
Just as the ACLU stood with civil rights groups in the 60s—fighting FBI surveillance of their members and activities—the ACLU today stands with Black Lives Matter—opposing its surveillance by the Department of Homeland Security.
Just as the ACLU defended Muhammad Ali and challenged his conviction for draft evasion, the ACLU now stands with student-athletes kneeling during the national anthem—protecting them from being suspended by their schools.
Just as the ACLU represented 13-year-old Mary Tinker when her school refused to let her wear a black armband to protest the Vietnam war, the ACLU now defends immigrant detainees punished with solitary confinement for engaging in hunger strikes to protest neglect of their medical needs.
And just as the ACLU protected the right of individuals to voice their dissent, the ACLU used its own megaphone to dissent, resist, and, of course, take them to court.
The ACLU fought the internment of Japanese-Americans—fought racial segregation—fought bans on contraceptives and abortion—fought prohibitions on the marriage of interracial couples and same-sex couples—fought attacks on the voting rights act—fought voter suppression.
Now, as we look to the difficult days ahead, we remain committed to fight for what’s right. So, if the new president insists on carrying out his un-American campaign promises, the ACLU will fight. If he seeks to restrict a woman’s right to abortion and jail her and her doctor, the ACLU will fight. If he seeks to amass a deportation force to round up and summarily expel 11 million undocumented immigrants, the ACLU will fight. If he seeks to ban the entry of Muslims, register Muslims living here, and surveil their mosques, the ACLU will fight. If he seeks to reauthorize torture, restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and roll back the gains made by LGBT people, the ACLU will fight.
In 1962, my mom, Maria Elena Exposito, said goodbye to her parents. Just 16, she sat with her two younger sisters in the waiting area of Havana airport. Separated by a glass partition, she waved one last time—wondering if she’d see her parents again.
Castro had declared Cuba communist, closed Catholic schools and cracked down on critics. My grandparents decided to send their children to America. In all, fourteen thousand kids sought refuge here.
My mom and her sisters landed in Miami, where nuns met them, brought them to Los Angeles and placed them in an orphanage. My mom learned English, finished high school, and started working as a bank teller and building a new life.
She passed a month ago, but her lessons live on. While I grieve her loss, I take comfort in what she taught me, especially now.
All that life threw at her—from being a refugee and starting over with nothing but the clothes on her back to battling cancer—she confronted it all with dignity, determination, and defiance.
As long as I live, I’ll never forget how proud she was to become a citizen and vote in 1976. She cherished her rights—especially the rights to think and speak freely and criticize the government. She saw it as her duty to use her rights.
As her son, I proudly stand here tonight and I promise you this—the ACLU will fight for what’s right.
But we need you with us—we need your help like never before. We need your support to fight with the strength that will be necessary.
Since the election, thousands of people have turned to the ACLU. In just three days, the ACLU has received an incredible 55,000 donations from people across the country who felt compelled to give—gifts of $10 and $20—often from people directly targeted by the president-elect’s campaign promises—often from people who couldn’t spare it.
On these screens you will see social media posts from some of them. I ask you to find inspiration, as I have, from these people and the thousands of others who have given to the ACLU as generously as they can. I ask you to give as generously as you can. I ask that you give like never before.
At your table, you will find a donation card. Please take a moment now to fill one out. Staff will come around to collect cards now, before dinner and at the end of the program.
On behalf of the one thousand individuals who work for the ACLU across the country and the one million more who donate their time and money, I promise you:
We will fight for what’s right—we will fight for everyone’s rights. We will fight in the courts. We will fight in Congress and every state legislature. We will teach people about their rights and how to use them, so they too can fight. We will fight and we will keep fighting, no matter how long it takes. We will never waver, we will never surrender.
And we will win.