"We hold our heads high, despite the price we have paid, because freedom is priceless."
-- Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, founder of Solidarity, 1983 Nobel laureate
Tonight, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation will award Poland's former President Lech Walesa with the Lincoln Leadership Prize.
Walesa becomes the fifth recipient, joining Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Captain of Apollo 13 James Lovell and journalist Tim Russert.
The Prize is given to "individuals marked by great strength of character, individual conscience, and an unwavering commitment to the defining principles of democracy. It recognizes those individuals who accept the responsibilities imposed by history and demanded by conscience."
Na Zdrowie! The 1.1 million Illinoisans of Polish decent are clinking glasses not only in celebration of Walesa receiving the Leadership Prize, but also because the state legislature has made today -- Feb. 9, 2012 -- "Lech Walesa Day" in Illinois. It is well deserved.
Walesa, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are the Big Four of history that reversed communism. Although Thatcher is still alive, Walesa is the only one who can still tell the stories and instill hope for our future.
He is simply one man who stood up against all known institutional force. At the time, politics in Poland were such that if you stood up, you would literally get shot down. Walesa frequently tells the following story: "In the early days of Solidarity, no one believed that we would end communism on a peaceful basis. And, our naysayers were right! If you added up all of the tanks, machine guns, bullets, and airplanes of the communists, we didn't stand a chance. Solidarity was successful because we had stronger principles and we had stronger values."
Walesa's message is simple: One person can change the course of history.
He's here to tell you that your individual participation in politics does matter. Take charge with your voice and your vote.
If the Polish people hadn't taken the reins themselves, fought for their liberty and freedom, they would still be the victims of tyranny today.
Walesa's experience shows that the biggest enemy in this fight is cynicism. You know that feeling of helplessness that your vote doesn't matter, that no matter how involved you are, nothing will really change? It's nonsense. If a Lech Walesa can risk his life in Poland, you can take a stand here in Illinois.
Walesa's faith, courage, and accomplishments give us all hope today.
"Lech Walesa Day" is tremendous recognition for all Polish people including the 1.1 million Poles in Illinois. Our people came to America in droves during communism, looking for a better life where we had a say in our fate. We overcame huge obstacles and rebuilt our lives from the ground up. We are hopeful and optimistic about our future.
Lech Walesa, Solidarity and the Polish experience didn't happen in a vacuum. Poland has deep historic traditions rooted in liberty. In fact, the centuries-old Polish motto is "for our freedom and yours."
Poland is known to have the world's second constitution codifying the freedom of individual rights (1791). General Casmir Pulaski saved George Washington's life and founded the American cavalry. West Point was founded by Gen. Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
On "Lech Walesa Day", please make something good happen in Illinois. Make a commitment to engage in the political conversations.
In the spirit of Lech Walesa, join in and stand up for what is right.
Adam Andrzejewski, a 2010 candidate for Illinois governor, is a Hinsdale businessman.