Newark Mayor Cory Booker told the crowd gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Minneapolis on Monday that liberty and justice won't be achieved for all Americans until people stand up and work for it.
"Hope is still real and the dream is still alive," Booker told the crowd of more than 2,000 gathered at the Minneapolis Convention Center for the annual breakfast. "We must stand up because people stood for us."
Booker recounted important lessons his parents taught him. He paid homage to civil rights leaders and workers. And he recounted his efforts to transform Newark.
Booker said too many Americans today aren't engaged in fighting social problems and injustice in their communities. He said they stand on the sidelines, just offering criticism.
"If it is to be, it's up to me. That's what my parents told me," Booker said. "We cannot yield in the face of our opposition or outrageous circumstances. We can't conform with a country that is serving the dreams and aspirations of some, and marginalizing far too many."
Booker is a rising political star in the Democratic Party. A charismatic speaker, Booker is getting national attention for his efforts to turn around Newark, a city that has been plagued by crime, poverty, and failing schools.
Booker grew up a mostly white suburb of Newark, New Jersey. Both of his parents worked for IBM, and they were also very active in the civil rights movement.
A standout football player at Stanford University, Booker was also a Rhodes Scholar. And he graduated from Yale Law School.
Booker first ran for mayor of Newark in 2002, losing to incumbent Sharpe James in a vicious campaign. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson backed James. Booker was derided as a carpetbagger and accused of not being "black enough."
But in 2006, James decided not to run for mayor again. And Booker won election in a landslide. He's now in his second term in office.
Booker said he's driven by his faith and values to address Newark's troubles.
"My father's message and my mom's message was simple: You got to stand up. People stood for you. You got to stand up. Don't let me ever hear you complain about what is. I want to see you working for what can be," he recalled.
Booker said he knows he owes a lot to the sacrifices made by his parents and others who participated in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and '70s. Booker said when he doesn't remember that, his dad reminds him.
"If I got at one of my graduations from Stanford, Yale or Oxford, God forbid I look a little too proud,' Booker said with a smile. "He'd call to me and say, 'Boy, don't you know that the degree you hold was paid for by the blood sweat and tears of your ancestors,'" he said.
Booker has been a high-profile city leader.
As a member of the Newark City Council, Booker engaged in a 10-day hunger strike to protest violence and drug dealing at an apartment complex in the city. He camped out in front of the apartments, and dozens of supporters joined him.
When comedian Conan O'Brien made a series of nasty jokes about Newark, Booker defended the city's honor. Their mock media feud ended with O'Brien writing a $50,000 check to a Newark charity.
And Booker's push to reform Newark's schools drew the attention of Facebook billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg. He has pledged $100 million to revive the city's schools.
During a press conference after his speech, Booker said he hopes to stay in Newark for the rest of his life. But not as mayor.
"I rule nothing out in the future," he said. "But I want to make these next three and a half years the boldest and the best I can for my city. So, we'll see what happens in the future."
There's talk in New Jersey about the 41-year-old Booker running for governor of that state. A recent poll found that a race between Booker and New Jersey's current governor, Chris Christie, would be a dead heat. Even about one-third of the state's Republicans said they like Booker.
But an election isn't near. Both Booker and Christie have about three years left in their current terms.
(MPR reporter Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report.)