Thank you and good morning.
I’d like to thank Secretary Norton for inviting me to be a part of this celebration. It’s an honor for me to join all of you to enshrine this house of worship in our nation’s heritage and among our historic landmarks.
It is essential that we protect and preserve the history and aesthetics of this beautiful church for generations to come – her pews and pulpit, her bricks and mortar, her stained glass and vaulted ceilings.
The reasons, of course, reach far beyond the structure itself, beyond a building…beyond, even, a basement lounge or a Sunday school room. We protect this place for the people…not only those who’ve worshipped here in the past, but for those who worship today, tomorrow, and into the future.
Four young girls, smiling in their Sunday best and preparing to sing for the Lord, instead were taken to His comforting embrace forever. We protect this place for them.
A leader of faith, whose confidence in his country defied all practical experience, still dreamed of an America that would judge him on the content of his character. We honor this place for him.
The men and women who sat in these pews and preached from this pulpit – or who set out from this place to dramatize their condition at lunch counters and picket lines – endured police brutality and racial hatred, but still loved their God and each other. We safeguard this place as their lasting legacy.
And for so many more – citizens of every skin color and nationality – whose rights and liberties are stronger today on account of sacrifices made here and elsewhere…we preserve this place as a reminder that civil rights are a fundamental American promise.
In a powerful eulogy for three of the four girls, Dr. Martin Luther King told the congregation of this church – and I quote – “their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”
It was only two weeks earlier that Dr. King had described to the world his dream of equality. And it was just several months after the tragedy here that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act and other statements consistent with our charter creed.
This building was a catalyst for the cause of justice. It gave those who worshipped here the will and hope to persevere. As the staging ground for the Birmingham non-violent movement, and later as the site of an unspeakable evil, this church was the backdrop to important changes in our nation’s laws and our neighbors’ respect for the rule of law.
The Justice Department is charged with enforcing those laws, and I have always believed that we play an important role in safeguarding the American dream of which Dr. King spoke. It’s the dream of living and prospering in a secure, lawful, hopeful, and safe society. It’s the dream pursued by my parents and grandparents. It’s the dream imagined in the pews of this church, voiced on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, echoed louder and longer than a blast of dynamite, and fulfilled – still today – in the actions of the Justice Department and the hearts of every American.
After nearly a half century of healing, we are still ever-mindful of a painful past.
That’s why we are here today to preserve for future generations the stories of history. It’s why we are here to mark this church as a tangible reminder of the sacrifices of our ancestors. And it is why we are pursuing a civil rights agenda that is as vital today as it was on September 15th, 1963. In doing so, we are carrying forward the work of leaders and parishioners of the 16th Street Baptist Church – a lasting testament to the sea change they began in this humble House of God.
As the first Hispanic Attorney General, I am personally concerned about the struggle for civil rights. Discrimination is against the law and will not be tolerated. This year, especially, we will renew our commitment to voting rights and fair housing – key elements of the American dream.
I recall my mother – the poor daughter of migrants – being denied entry to a restaurant in a small, west-Texas town. In one generation, she went from being forced to the back door by a restaurant owner, to walking in the front door of the White House to visit the President. The story is even more powerful when you consider that she never voted until she was 50 years old because, as she said, it was a different time for people of color in America.
Similar stories were common in Birmingham forty-five years ago. And, while the American dream is alive in Alabama today, there is still work left undone. It’s why we must keep safe this historic landmark.
While the motives are not yet clear, the series of church fires across Alabama in the past few weeks remind us of the work to be done. The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is leading a massive federal response to these violent crimes. All of our specialists – from forensic scientists to detection canines – are helping to follow every lead, listen to every tip, and track every possible clue to solve these arsons.
ATF has established a tip line and a reward for information that helps crack this case. Someone must have seen something or know something that could help investigators find those responsible for these heinous, premeditated crimes.
This isn’t only a problem here in Alabama. Just ten days ago, a man was sentenced to 63 months in prison for setting fires in two churches in Wisconsin and Michigan. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division helped handle this racially motivated case. The defendant pleaded guilty, saying that he set fire to what he believed were African-American churches in order to get revenge for a physical altercation he had with two black men a few days earlier.
As long as houses of worship are targeted and attacked – for any reason – the Justice Department will enforce our laws to keep every church, mosque, and synagogue safe from violent crime.
The many brave and dedicated parishioners here in Birmingham set out from this sacred place to preserve the American dream by confronting fire hoses and vicious dogs…and they came inside this sanctuary to pray for understanding and grace.
As we remember their contributions to the great social cause of our lifetime…and mark forever this place of national significance…let us – each of us no matter our race or creed, no matter our profession or passion – let us redouble our efforts to labor in the work begun here at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
If we do, four young girls will not have died in vain on this hallowed ground. If we do, we will bring forth the Beloved Community conceived by Dr. King and pursued by his departed wife. And if we do, the American dream will be more readily available to more people than ever before in our history.