Raised in northern New Jersey, Cory Booker went to Stanford University on a football scholarship, accepted a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, then studied at Yale Law School. Graduating from Yale, his options were limitless.
He chose public service.
He chose to move to a rough neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, where he worked as a tenants’ rights lawyer before winning a seat on the City Council. In 2006, he was elected mayor, and for more than seven years he was the public face of an American city that had gone decades with too little positive national attention and investment. In 2013, Booker became the first African American elected to represent New Jersey in the U.S. Senate.
In United, Cory Booker draws on personal experience to issue a stirring call to reorient our nation and our politics around the principles of compassion and solidarity. He speaks of rising above despair to engage with hope, pursuing our shared mission, and embracing our common destiny.
Here is his account of his own political education, the moments—some entertaining, some heartbreaking, all of them enlightening—that have shaped his civic vision. Here are the lessons Booker learned from the remarkable people who inspired him to serve, men and women whose example fueled his desire to create opportunities for others. Here also are his observations on the issues he cares about most deeply, from race and crime and the crisis of mass incarceration to economic and environmental justice.
“Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word,” Booker writes in this galvanizing book. In a world where we too easily lose touch with our neighbors, he argues, we must remember that we all rise or fall together—and that we must move beyond mere tolerance for one another toward a deeper connection: love.
Praise for United
“An exceedingly good book, and an important book, and a reminder of what makes Booker an important and, through it all, a promising public figure.”—PolitickerNJ
“What sets Senator Booker’s work apart from that of similar political books is that it seeks to elevate discourse rather than bring down opponents of the opposite partisan persuasion. This is a refreshing take, one that is truly worthy of study and contemplation.”—The Huffington Post
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A Conspiracy of Love
Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go. —James Baldwin
I hate Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Okay, I don’t, I love him. But can I at least say that he is guilty of assault and battery on my ego? That he has a talent for inflating the egos of others only to deftly and without warning pop them . . . and then to sport a rascally grin, as if to say, What, did I do something?
And what was the transgression committed by this public intellectual, this Harvard professor of African American studies, this award winning filmmaker and author and editor of dozens of books? It was calling me up and offering me a dream, saying something like, Cory, hey, man, I’ve got this show called Finding Your Roots where we trace the ancestry of two individuals . . .
I knew about these shows, of course. The premise was to select well-known personalities—Oprah, Chris Rock, Barbara Walters, John Legend, Martha Stewart—and through research, DNA testing, and more, unearth their genealogical roots. The stories were fascinating and often shocking, complete with reveals in which guests lit up with joy or were struck with astonishment at the realization of who they are and where they come from. Many guests wept at the revelation. I think the good professor likes to make people cry on TV.
I figured he was calling me to invite me to a premiere.
Well, we decided to do a special about two elected leaders, he said, and I want you to be one of them. Interested?
I almost dropped the phone. Interested? Are you kidding? I’d love that. But are you sure?
He responded with something like, Absolutely. I thought it would be good to get someone from your generation, an up-and-comer . . .
He went on saying such nice things about me. I didn’t care whether or not they were true—they were compliments from a man I looked up to. As we talked, I was full of excitement at the prospect of having my genealogy traced. Then I thought of something.
“Can I ask who you’re pairing me with on the show?”
John Lewis, he said.
I said nothing. I might have stopped breathing. He repeated the name deliberately, perhaps to fill the silence, or maybe to stick it to me a bit more.
Congressman John Lewis is a living legend, and a hero of mine and to many. He was born a son of sharecroppers outside of Troy, Alabama. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis left Fisk University to go to the front lines of the civil rights movement in America. He helped found and was eventually named chairman of one of the most important civil rights organizations of the time: the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Lewis organized voter registration drives and sit-ins; he led the Freedom Rides; he was a keynote speaker at the March on Washington. More than once he was beaten during his nonviolent protests. He was renowned for his humility, self-sacrifice, and leadership, and was seen by many as one of the most courageous people in the civil rights movement. Today Lewis serves in the House of Representatives; thanks to his moral stature, his grace, and his statesmanship, he is considered the conscience of the Congress.
All of which is to say that Henry Louis Gates Jr. had envisioned a show in which he would partner Jimmy Olsen with Superman.
I did the show, and—this is a phrase I don’t throw around lightly—it was life-changing. I’m profoundly grateful to Professor Gates for the opportunity. But of course any viewer could detect the difference between our introductions. In my head, I heard the announcer in a deep TV-ready voice:
John Lewis, hero of the civil rights movement, marching with grace and determination from Selma, Alabama, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what would become forever known as Bloody Sunday. He stood at the front lines of history, leading peaceful protestors, courageously standing and praying before Alabama state troopers. The troopers fired tear gas, then swarmed into the crowd, wearing gas masks and swinging billy clubs, hitting marchers, striking John Lewis in the skull. This righteous and courageous man literally bled the southern soil red for freedom. . . .
And then, in that same splendiferous voice:
And Cory Booker, of suburban New Jersey, riding his Big Wheel toward his family’s five-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom house. He takes a turn too sharply . . . oh no! He falls off, skins his knee, and runs home screaming for his mother. He literally bled the northeastern soil red for . . . Big Wheel riders everywhere.
Like I said, I don’t hate Henry Louis Gates Jr., because he managed to put my life in perspective, in light of what came before, in light of where I came from, in light of our collective American heritage. Perhaps he didn’t know it (or perhaps he did), but this invitation and his revelations about my family gave me my first full glimpse of the beautiful, seemingly infinite lattice that connects us all. It compelled me to look closer, to see how my family’s journey intersected with and almost immediately benefited from John Lewis and all the others who marched onto that bridge. Their collective courage, leadership, and love helped to unlock a literal door for me and my family—they helped to secure for my family and me a New Jersey home.
I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
My family worked to have me understand that there are two interrelated ethics critical for citizenship. One is that we all must take responsibility for ourselves, invest in our own development, strive for personal excellence. My family taught me that we are all responsible for our own well-being, our growth, and most of all our attitude: The most consequential daily decision you make, I was told, is the attitude you choose as you engage in your day.
If I was doing a shoddy job of cleaning out the garage, my mother would give it to me about working with the right attitude, about a commitment to excellence. I would hear echoes of the civil rights movement in her lectures about personal accountability, complete with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes tailored to the chore: “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’”
But my family also insisted that personal ethic must be seamlessly bound with a larger communal ethic, a sense of connectedness: a recognition that we are all a part of something and have reaped the benefits of the struggles waged by those who had an unwavering commitment to the common good. From my earliest days, I was informed that I was the result of a conspiracy spanning space and time—that billions of meritorious actions past and present yielded the abundance I enjoy.
These twin ethics—responsibility and connection—reverberated throughout my young life, especially when I started to enjoy personal success. In my last years under my parents’ roof, my father would watch me walking around the house with a particular degree of teenage swagger, and he’d make a crack: “Son, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple, ’cause you were born on third base.” Then I would inevitably hear stories about my father’s childhood: born poor, to a single mother, in the segregated South. He would detail the many people whose acts of kindness, decency, and love had enabled him to escape poverty and dislocation. He made it clear to me that I was—that we in this generation are—the physical manifestation of a conspiracy of love. The conspiracy of love wasn’t conducted with grand gestures or expansive deeds; it was powered by people who practiced consistent acts of decency that, when combined over time and with the acts of others, carried a transformational power. My father made it clear to me as a child that I was alive because of the relentless actions of humble people who will never make it into a history book but define the character of this country. He called on me to be such a person, to always remember that the biggest thing you can offer on any given day is a small act of kindness.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Empathy, Responsibility, Action 3
1 A Conspiracy of Love 7
2 Talents 22
3 Ms, Virginia Jones 35
4 Do Something 58
5 My Father's Son 81
6 I See You 96
7 To Washington 113
8 The High Cost of Cheap Labor 124
9 Law, Order & Accountability 137
10 Incarceration Nation 162
11 My Brother's Keeper 175
12 The Law of the Commons 192
Epilogue: Go Far Together 213