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August 1, 2013
‘America is better than that’

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Award-winning broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien’s mother is Afro-Cuban and her father is white and Australian. They had to marry in Washington, D.C., because interracial marriage was illegal in Baltimore in 1958.

Their friends advised them not to have children, because “biracial children will not fit in this world.”

Soledad O’Brien Her mother, a French and English teacher, and her father, a mechanical engineering professor, met at Johns Hopkins University and forged their own way. They had six children, who all graduated from Harvard University.

But O’Brien’s mother told of walking along the streets of Baltimore with her young mixed-race children and strangers would spit at them.

When O’Brien asked her to describe what that was like, her mother said: “We knew America was better than that.”

“Powerful words,” 46-year-old O’Brien ­— a former CNN anchor who chairs Starfish Media Group and is a contributing reporter for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” and a special correspondent for “America Tonight” on the soon-to-be-launched Al Jazeera America — told those gathered at the Judicial Luncheon at The Florida Bar Annual Convention in Boca Raton.

“There’s a certain bravery in deciding that you will be on the right side of history.”

Her parents’ philosophy, she said, was to “move through life with dignity and eventually people will follow your lead.”

O’Brien described how they were the first black family to move to St. James, an all-white suburb of Long Island, New York, where Soledad was born and officially named María de la Soledad Teresa O’Brien, which she said basically translates to “The Blessed Virgin Mary of Solitude.”

Her mother was committed that her children would not speak Spanish, because she wanted them to blend in.

O’Brien described a family photo from the ’70s: There’s her dad, white and bald; her black mother with a giant Afro hairdo; and six kids, all brown, in Afros. They are wearing polyester clothes, “with the stripes going this way, but the stripes on the pants going the other direction.

“And we are a family in front of our VW bus. We probably could have gone with the Spanish. We were not blending in,” O’Brien said, as the audience erupted in laughter.

“Fast forward 35 years. Look how America looks: Diverse, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic. I remember hearing very clearly that we would never fit in. We’re part of the fastest demographic in the nation,” O’Brien said, noting, “It’s incredible how quickly that happened.”

O’Brien said she appreciates telling the stories of people who were once outsiders in a rapidly changing world, such as producing “Black in America” and “Latino in America” on CNN.

She recalled doing a documentary about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

Actually, she said, the title of that speech was “Normalcy, Never Again.”

“There are parts of that speech nobody likes to talk about: ‘In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.’

“That sounds kind of uncomfortable,” O’Brien said, continuing to quote King: “‘It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”’”

At that time in 1963, O’Brien said, that was “an uncomfortable message.”

“Sometimes, fairness and justice are uncomfortable and debating it civilly — it’s hard,” O’Brien said.

“But I think true leadership is about departing from the script, taking a different path, because you understand the critical value of justice and fairness.

“I mean, it’s what this nation was built upon. It’s about going off-script at times, because it’s important to think about where you stand on the right side of history. It’s about a blunt conversation about race and class. And what we believe — we, the whole country believe what America is.”

By the time her parents had their sixth child, she said, the Supreme Court had overturned the ban on interracial marriage.

“My mother used to say, ‘If you wait around for people to get on your side, you could be waiting a long time.’”

O’Brien said her proudest journalistic moments are stories about justice and fairness when she gives marginalized people a voice, such as her documentary about Muslims in a town in Tennessee trying to build a mosque who received support from “surprising sources;” and her documentary “The Women of Ground Zero,” about six female firefighters fighting for their rights with the New York City Fire Department; and a story about Gary and Tony, gay men who dreamed of marriage and a family and had to travel to Canada to tie the knot and have a baby, because it wasn’t allowed in the United States.

“That baby is now 3 years old and the law has changed,” O’Brien said, as applause rippled from some tables.

“We have to figure out how to get along together in a world we share,” she said. “We can have different opinions. But I don’t think we can shut out those other voices. That’s not being a leader. That’s being an obstacle. . . .We have to find connections to build the peace, and to come together, even with people we might disagree with.”

Looking out at the audience of judges and lawyers, O’Brien said: “I think you in this room, more than others, perhaps, hold the future of this nation in your hands because you are the gatekeepers. You are the law, and you are the gatekeepers. You are the division, I think, in a lot of ways, between people who will be successful and people who will not; between people who will be on the right path and people who will not.

“And this country has decided the rights of the minority will be protected, and you are those protectors. Talk about stories that are rarely told! I have to imagine there would be a number of shocking stories you could tell me.

“That’s why the responsibility comes back to you. My mother used to say: ‘America is better than that.’ What she meant was in this country justice and fairness are important, the most important. Eventually, wrongs are righted, and that’s what this nation stands for. Sometimes, it takes a very wrong turn. And sometimes the path is not a neat path. But, eventually, we get there.”

[Revised: 09-15-2014]