Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day The Great Hall January 17, 2003
(Note: The Attorney General Often Deviates From Prepared Remarks)
Forty years ago this August, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a minister - the son and grandson of ministers - delivered a speech that forever shaped the mission of the Department of Justice. More eloquently than any attorney general before or since, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of making justice, quote, "a reality for all God's children."
Dr. King spoke of a dream - a dream deeply rooted in the American dream - of a nation that rises up to live out the true meaning of its creed; an America in which all men and women are guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
At the Department of Justice, it is our mission to safeguard and to defend these rights - for all God's children. Our duty to defend freedom through the law by its very definition excludes no American on the basis of his or her race, religion, sex or creed. Fulfilling this duty is the obligation of each and every one of us.
From the first days of our administration, honoring the diversity of the American people has been a priority for President Bush and for me. And I am pleased to be able to say that never before in history has there been a more diverse and more qualified team of presidentially appointed leaders here at the Department of Justice. Under Larry Thompson's indispensable leadership, we have not been satisfied with a team that merely looks like America - we have built a team that reflects the strength of America.
I am honored to serve with this team, and I look forward to the day when the entirety of the Justice Department - from line attorneys to investigators to staff assistants - reflects the same diversity and professional excellence as the leadership team.
Today, we gather in this Great Hall of Justice to honor the life and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. The energy and vision of Dr. King were instrumental in the creation of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.
Since its establishment in 1957, the Civil Rights Division has undergone a dramatic increase in both size and responsibility. In the past two years alone, the Division has seen an 11 percent increase in its number of employees. Under the outstanding leadership of Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd, the Civil Rights Division has increased virtually all of its civil rights enforcement activities. To give you a few examples:
- We are eradicating police misconduct. We are working cooperatively with state and local police departments to help deter the use of excessive force. In Cincinnati, for example, we spent months meeting with community groups and the Cincinnati police department to fix the problem - not just fix the blame - of racial unrest in the city. Working together, we identified areas of opportunity for immediate reform and remediation. Within a year, we helped transform a city of division into a city of reconciliation. Last April, Ralph Boyd and I traveled to Cincinnati to sign an historic settlement with police that has served as a model for similar agreements in Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, New York.
- We are closing the education gap. The Civil Rights Division is working with state and local officials to reduce barriers to quality education for all America's children. To this end, the Division has settled two landmark desegregation lawsuits: The first is a 25-year old lawsuit in Mississippi, and the second is a 20-year old lawsuit in Yonkers, New York. Among other things, money from these settlements is being used to:
- fund educational programs aimed at narrowing the "achievement gap" between students;
- improve educational facilities; and
- increase access to higher education.
We will continue to work to ensure all children have access to quality education and that no child is left behind.
- We are preventing and prosecuting crimes based on race, religion and national origin particularly in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
- We helped prevent a post-September 11 discriminatory backlash by conducting educational outreach, working with other agencies to provide services to communities, and referring allegations of discrimination to the appropriate authorities.
- We secured the conviction of Zachary J. Rolnik for violating the civil rights of Dr. James J. Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened 390 investigations of possible hate crimes.
- And federal officials have cooperated in bringing over 70 state and local prosecutions, and 12 defendants have been named in 11 federal prosecutions.
- We are actively protecting the access to and integrity of American elections. This past election day, we put in place an unprecedented nationwide program to guarantee access to the polls, prevent fraud and prohibit voter intimidation.
- We directed all 93 U.S. attorneys to designate a District Election Officer responsible for our efforts on election day.
- We engaged in extensive outreach efforts to minority groups and election officials to inform them of their obligations to provide bilingual access to elections.
- We sent 324 federal observers and 108 Justice officials to 26 counties in 14 states to monitor the general election.
- We had federal prosecutors and investigators available around the clock for the purpose of receiving complaints and taking immediate action on election day.
The strong presence and commitment of Department of Justice officials resulted in a smooth election with far fewer complaints than have been reported in recent years. Their presence also assuaged the concerns of American voters, who embraced the privilege and the opportunity to shape our government at the polls.
America has made tremendous progress in the last forty years. And as we strive to realize Dr. King's dream, we are guided always by his life and his words. We are inspired by his example and we are given strength by his unique vision of the values that bring us together rather than the differences that tear us apart.
In the spirit of Dr. King, we seek justice for all because we know, quote, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
In the spirit of Dr. King, we seek equality for all, so we will be judged by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.
And in the spirit of Dr. King, we seek freedom for all, because, as Dr. King understood, quote, "There is nothing in all the world greater than freedom."
Monday will mark the 74th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's birth, and the 17th time America has celebrated the national holiday honoring the man who called Americans to a new ideal and a new vision of justice. As Governor of Missouri, I was honored to sign into law the first Dr. Martin Luther King holiday in my state. As a nation, we set aside this one day not just to honor Dr. King's life, but to reflect upon his vision of - and challenge to - America.
Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us we are all entitled to our human dignity, and obligated to respect the human dignity of one another. At the Department of Justice, our goals, like Dr. King's, are rooted in respect for our common humanity and in reverence for this legacy of worthiness. Each and every one of us is made in the image of our common Creator. Each and every one of us is an heir to this legacy.
This is not a one-day sentiment or a negotiable objective. It is our ongoing mission; it is our life's work to ensure all Americans are heirs to this "legacy of worthiness." Today, as we commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, let us also rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of justice for all God's children.