Good morning and thank you for inviting me to be with you. It’s a privilege to be here at the historic Shiloh Baptist Church, and to celebrate the important work done by those like Reverend Smith and the volunteers at the Male Youth Enhancement Project. And it’s a particular honor to share the podium today with Ted Shaw of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
We're here today, like people all across our nation this weekend, to honor the life and the vision of a great American: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This Monday marks the twenty-second year that we will pay formal tribute to Dr. King and his legacy – and the second time we do so since mourning the loss of Coretta Scott King, whose role we are also justly honoring today. Martin Luther King Day has become an annual occasion when we, as a nation, are made to pause and take stock of how far we have come in fulfilling Dr. King’s dream of equal rights and freedom for all; and of how much further we have to travel.
As we take stock this year, there is some cause for optimism and celebration. The progress our country has made since Dr. King’s untimely and tragic death forty years ago this April has been in some ways monumental, even if at times halting and imperfect. We can measure that progress not just by the list of distinguished African Americans who have served at all levels and in all branches of our local, state, and national governments, or even by the number of schools that have been opened and improved, but also by the number of students taking advantage of the rights he fought so hard to secure. Not just by the improved access for all Americans to the right to vote, but also by the number of ballots cast.
But, however much progress we have made, however far we have come, there is still a distance to go. We all recall Dr. King’s famous statement that, in his words, “[a]n injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And there, most certainly, is still injustice in this great country.
Although Jim Crow laws and “Whites Only” signs thankfully no longer exist, racism and discrimination no doubt remain, as horrid symbols like nooses, cross burnings, and swastikas vividly remind us. Although American citizens are no longer routinely denied entrance to the polling booth based on the color of their skin, subtler forms of voter discrimination persist, and require appropriate action.
Moreover, as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King both recognized, the goal of equal rights and freedom for all also calls for attention to ills like crime and, in Dr. King’s words, “debilitating and grinding poverty.” Dr. King eloquently called on us to remain, as he put it, “dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.” And although many more today than in Dr. King’s time live in that “metropolis of daily security,” we must remain, as he put it, “dissatisfied.”
The need for programs like the one here at Shiloh shows that too many of our nation’s citizens live in fear of violence, whether from gangs or other violent crime. Too many of our nation’s youth lack the educational opportunities that are a key to hope.
As I said earlier, the annual tribute to Dr. King calls upon each of us to take stock of what work remains to be done. That call has taken on greater significance for me personally this year. Last Martin Luther King Day, I was a private citizen in New York City – a lawyer in a city with no shortage of lawyers. Today, I am a lawyer in another city that also has no shortage of lawyers, but I am no longer a private citizen. I have an extraordinary opportunity and a daunting task: to lead the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice occupies a special place in the fight to make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality. Justice is not merely the Department’s name – it is its mission. And central to that mission is the vigorous enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws.
A half century ago, the Department formed a Division devoted to the cause of civil rights. Thanks in large part to Dr. Martin Luther King and the heirs of his legacy, including Coretta Scott King whom we also celebrate at this breakfast, it seems impossible today to imagine the Justice Department without the Civil Rights Division. In many ways, in just 50 years – that is, within my lifetime – the work of the Civil Rights Division has come to symbolize what the Department of Justice is all about. Through the Civil Rights Division, the Department of Justice has given real substance to Thomas Jefferson’s declaration, which was shamefully disregarded in Dr. King’s time, that we are all created equal.
The early days of the Civil Rights Division were a turbulent and violent time in our nation’s history, a time when Martin Luther King’s optimism in America and his commitment to non-violent social change were all the more remarkable. When James Meredith became the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962, the Civil Rights Division was there. John Doar, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, confronted Mississippi’s Governor when the Governor resisted attempts to desegregate the University. After riots broke out on the campus, wounding 160 United States Marshals, Doar literally lived with James Meredith to ensure his safety.
Today’s confrontations may be less dramatic. But, as in John Doar’s time, those in the Department of Justice are vigilant in doing what law and justice require. Under the leadership of men and women like Grace Chung Becker, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and nominee for that position who is here with her family today, the Civil Rights Division remains at the forefront of the fight for equal rights and freedom for all.
The Division touches nearly every facet of American life, from education to employment, from housing to religious liberties, and from public accommodations to voting. This fall, for example, the Civil Rights Division will play a crucial role through monitors and other means in assuring that the laws are scrupulously observed as our nation chooses a new President. And the Division vigorously prosecutes bias-related violence and racially motivated official misconduct.
The Division not only deals with the injustices of the present; it also does not forget the injustices of the past. For example, last year, it secured the conviction of James Seale, a former Ku Klux Klan member, for two brutal killings in 1964. Such cases vividly illustrate Dr. King’s observation that, as he eloquently put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
That the Civil Rights Division can continue to function as it does, pursuing the many cases it brings, in large measure gives testimony to the genius of Dr. King, who saw the law as the best instrument for beating back the evils of racial strife and group discord. When we think of what we have seen, and what we continue to see, in the history and experience of racial and religious discord in other countries that were not so fortunate as to have a Dr. Martin Luther King, we realize what horrors we were spared, and how blessed we were by his life.
Our progress has been slow, even fitful at times, even painful at times, and it came even at the cost of lives, including Dr. King’s own, but the progress has been overwhelmingly peaceful, and by and large steady.
In the brief time that I have to serve as Attorney General, I intend to do what I can to continue, and to speed, this progress. In my first month on the job, I hosted a group of our nation’s civil rights leaders, including Ted Shaw, whose career is itself a continuation on the path marked by Dr. King. I pledged to them, as I do now to you, that the vigorous, fair, and impartial enforcement of the civil rights laws is among my top priorities as Attorney General.
There will, of course, be moments of disagreement, as there have been. But I hope and assume that those disagreements will be rare. And it is important to recognize that any such disagreements are about means, not ends. Like Dr. King, we all share the goal of equal rights and freedom for all – of fulfilling what Dr. King called America’s “sacred obligation” and securing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as he put it, for all “God’s children.”
A little more than two months ago, when I took the oath as Attorney General, I declared that what the Department of Justice does is law. That may sound prosaic or limited, or ordinary, but it is better than the alternative, where the results depend on the opinion of one person or group of people as to what they feel is right. We don’t do simply what seems fair and right according to our own tastes, standards, or political opinions. In each case, however large or small, we do what the facts and the law require, and the result is justice.
That is true for all of what the Department of Justice does – but especially true in the area of civil rights. Civil rights is not, and must not become, an issue of black or white; Muslim or Christian; Republican or Democrat. The enforcement of the civil rights laws is, as Dr. King made plain, a universal moral command, a choice between justice and injustice.
In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King spoke of what he called "an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind." I share that faith. Not only because of the tremendous progress that our nation has made since Dr. King’s day, when many Americans toiled under what he described accurately and eloquently “the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” But also because there are too many good people like those who serve in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and those like Reverend Smith and the volunteers behind the Shiloh Male Youth Enhancement Project.
But Dr. King’s legacy mandates more than just faith; it requires vigilance and action in the face of injustice. As Coretta Scott King reminded us, as she put it, “we were not put here in this greatest of nations to dream small dreams and perform insignificant deeds.” I have committed myself to such vigilance and such action, and I ask for your partnership and your support in doing so. I think we owe nothing less to Dr. and Mrs. King.
And I thank you very much.