Burris: Lack of Senate diversity is "unacceptable"

Outgoing senator delivers his final speech on the Senate floor

November 18, 2010

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(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
Burris spoke to reporters last year following a speech about healthcare reform last year at Stroger Hospital in Chicago.

Illinois U.S. Sen. Roland Burris says it's "unacceptable" there will soon be no black Americans serving in the Senate. The Chicago Democrat delivered his farewell speech in the chamber Thursday.

Burris noted that when he leaves, the Senate will have no members who are black.

"Our political progress has proven less accessible, and less representative, than it ought to be," he said.

Burris says as the only current black senator, his constituency has "stretched far beyond the boundaries of Illinois."

"And at times as I've tried to bring their voice to this chamber," he said, "I have accurately felt the absence of any other black person to represent them."

It's been more than 22 months since Burris was appointed to the Senate by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich. The senator did not directly mention that controversy in his speech, focusing instead on highlights of what he calls "an honor of a lifetime."

"Together we have achieved passage of the most ambitious legislative agenda since the Great Depression," Burris said.

Burris also talked of legislation he introduced, including a bill to study putting a national park at the site of New Philadelphia, an Illinois frontier town founded by a freed slave.

"And I hope as a legacy to Burris that someday that that legislation will pass," he added.

While he was critical in his speech of partisanship and obstructionism, he praised his fellow senators, thanked his staff, his family, "the elevator operators, the Capitol police [and] the Senate train drivers."

In a few weeks, Burris will be replaced by U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Highland Park, who won a special election to complete the term. Kirk met Thursday with his soon-to-be colleague, Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat. In a statement, Durbin described the meeting as "constructive."