Senator Richard Durbin’s statement on Senator Roland Burris (following swearing-in ceremonies)

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“Mr. President, I want to say a word about my old friend, Roland Burris.  In 1978, I ran for Lieutenant Governor and he ran for Comptroller.  No one heard of either one of us or the offices we were running for.  We were obscure as possible so we found kinship at the back of parade routes as the bigwigs marched on but we struck up a friendship that has extended over three decades.  It’s a friendship that is based on more than just that happenstance of running in the same year.

Roland and I are from the same part of Illinois.  Roland Burris was born a few miles from my hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois, in Centralia. But there is more.  That is one of the central parts of our nation when it comes to when it comes to railroads.  I come from a railroad family.  My mother, father, two brothers and I all worked for the New York Central Railroad.  Roland Burris’ father, Earl, ran a small grocery store to supplement his income as a laborer for the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad.

Earl Burris had a strong sense of community—and a low tolerance for injustice.  On Memorial Day 1953, Earl Burris decided to take a stand against injustice by defying Centralia’s unofficial “white only” policy for the city’s public swimming pool.  So he hired a lawyer and arranged for that lawyer to meet him and young Roland, then 16, at the swimming pool.

Guess what?  The lawyer didn’t show up.
Roland Burris later said he remembered his father, all summer long, saying if segregation and injustice were ever going to end, people needed to show up and be accountable. By the end of the summer, 16-year-old Roland Burris had made up his mind. He would show up.  He would pursue a career in politics and law.

Off he went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which incidentally has a record of being one of the most productive colleges in America for African American graduates.  Roland Burris studied political science, distinguished himself as a leader on campus, and headed a group that exposed discriminatory practices among Carbondale merchants toward African American students.
In 1963, he earned a law degree from Howard University, then became a federal bank examiner in the U.S. Treasury department—the first African American ever to hold such a position.  In 1964, he was hired by Continental Illinois National Bank, where he rose to the post of vice president in less than a decade.  He is also a past national executive director of Operation PUSH.

In Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, we have elected more African Americans statewide than any state in our union and we are proud of it.

Roland Burris paved the way for so many, including the man who will be sworn in as President next Tuesday, Barack Obama.  He has held two of our state’s highest elected offices and was Illinois’ first African American Comptroller, as well the first African American Attorney General.  He is a good man and a dedicated public servant.

Now he is the 48th United States Senator from the great state of Illinois, and the 1,907th person to be sworn in to this distinguished body.

Here is an interesting fact as well: Roland and his wife Berlean live on the South Side of Chicago in a home once owned by the great—the immortal—Mahalia Jackson, the original “Queen of Gospel Music.”  In 1948, Mahalia Jackson recorded a song that was so popular, music stores couldn’t keep it in stock.  It sold eight million copies.  The title of that song was, “Move On Up A Little Higher.”
For 50 years, Roland Burris has sought to “move on up a little higher”—not for his sake alone, but for the chance to help others, including our great state of Illinois. I congratulate him.”


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