Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Deputy Attorney General
NAACP Annual Convention
New York, NY
July 13, 1999
I consider it an honor and a privilege to be here today and to have this opportunity to address you all as we gather to celebrate, and to make more effective, this great organization. It is for me in some ways a bittersweet occasion for in the past few days we have lost the last of the Big Four. James Farmer has now joined Martin Luther King, Whitney Young and, of course, Roy Wilkins in a better place. And because of their sacrifices our nation is a better place and our people live better lives.
The Big Four would be genuinely pleased to know that their long and valiant struggle to break down the barriers to full enfranchisement had, in many instances, truly borne fruit. They would also be pleased by seeing the progress that so many of their people have made in so many areas- proud of their growth and proud of their accomplishments. Yes, we can be confident that the Big Four would, in some ways, be very happy today.
But they would also be concerned in knowing that much remains to be done in this great country of ours. They would be distressed by the sight of all the talent that is wasted and all the contributions that are not made because - - still today - - individuals are excluded from full participation in the affairs of our nation solely because of their color, national heritage, or gender. On a hot August day thirty-six years ago, Dr. King pointed forward to a day when ALL Americans would enjoy "the riches of freedom and the security of justice." We have come far along that path, but, sadly, the realization of their dream still lies ahead of us.
We, as a society, although no longer legally racist, are still distressingly race conscious. Three decades after the dismantling of separate facilities, the destruction of separate entrances, the demise of Jim Crow laws, the abolition of poll taxes, and the death of legal discrimination - - in essence, three decades after the end of an "American apartheid" - - we still as a nation have not come together as one. In large measure, this is due to the specters of fear, misunderstanding, hostility, and indifference that all too often haunt our lives, whether we are white, black, brown, yellow, or red. We, as a society, have not given life to the dream of the Four because too many still do not share in it. And if one group of people in our society is not free, let me assure you, none of us truly are. We as a nation can only reach our full potential for success, creativity, and justice if EVERYONE is permitted to participate in our vibrant and dynamic society. The answer to the question "how free are black people in 1999?" would be disturbing to King, Young, Farmer and Wilkins. Too many of our black citizens live in the most distressed parts of our cities where fear is the dominant emotion and also a guiding force. How free can a people be when they live their lives afraid to leave their homes, when they are exposed to such levels of violence that premature death becomes somehow routine, and when the safety of their children is never really assured? Is this truly the "riches of freedom" to which they devoted their entire lives? Or are we not experiencing a latter day form of servitude where the master is violence and the overseer is the fear that it generates? Young black men make up about one percent of this nation's population but are about 17% of this country's homicide victims and about 29% of those convicted of murder. Over 90% of the black people murdered in this nation were killed by other black people. How did this happen? How did we get to this point? How can we, as a country and a people, become truly free?
The violent crime that grips too much of our society is born of poverty, an inadequate educational system, and a lack of opportunity. It is also derived from a retreat from those fundamental values that once served as the foundation of our lives. We all must now be willing to recognize the fact that in order for us to further advance as a nation, we must aggressively address these underlying problems with a creative combination of action and responsibility by government and by individual citizens.
It has seemingly become unfashionable to talk about government in a positive way these days. That is unfortunate. Although it is necessary for us all to grapple with the issue of the proper SCOPE of government, at no time should we doubt that government CAN be a positive force in our lives and in our society as a whole. After all, it was the Founding Fathers themselves who fashioned our system of government " in order to ... establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare...." These goals are our birthright as Americans, and we should do all within our power to ensure that our government achieves these objectives.
Specifically, in our ongoing efforts to establish justice in our country, we must constantly strive to ensure that the ideal of equality is the guiding principle of all governmental action. For without equality of opportunity, there can be no justice. It is a fundamental responsibility of government to insure that everyone be given an equal chance to succeed, unencumbered by discrimination. This is the "equality of opportunity" and not the "equality of result" to which we, as a society, must aspire. But theory is not adequate; we must put that platitude into practice. The only way that we can expect to do so at the governmental level is through the strong enforcement of civil rights statutes, the maintenance of properly focused affirmative action programs, the expansion of our Hate Crime Laws, the passage of the Conyers Data Collection Bill and, yes the wise spending of tax dollars. We must continue in our long struggle to get and keep government involved in the fight to restore our cities, not through the mindless expenditure of wasted funds, but through investment in our most precious resource -- our citizens. The tax money that is not spent today to nourish impoverished children, to provide them with adequate health care, to keep students in public schools that are worthy of the term "learning institutions", and to assist our adults with vocational opportunity will most assuredly be spent tomorrow to pay for the maintenance of an ever growing criminal justice system. We can -- we MUST -- do better.
But, of course, the responsibility of the government in no way absolves us of the responsibility each of us bears as an individual citizen. Though government must play a role in helping to ameliorate the negative conditions that disproportionately afflict minority communities, it is the inhabitants of those areas who will ultimately decide their own fate. No government program will, by itself, make people care about their neighbors and neighborhoods, or force them into taking care in their personal conduct. That power lies not with government but within all of us. Though we as a people are ever mindful of the Power that is greater than us all, we must recognize that on this Earth God's work must truly be our own.
We must begin to insist again that everyone be held accountable for their own actions. "Personal responsibility" must once again become the constant refrain and the guiding principle of our society. As a people and as a nation we have become hesitant to embrace the values that served us so well for so long. We have become reluctant to criticize that conduct which we know to be wrong, and hesitant to advocate on behalf of those precepts we know to be right. And we have become far too proficient at simply making excuses for patently negative behavior that is coarsening our society, debilitating our communities and destroying far too many of the lives of our brothers and sisters. We are in danger of making true the observation of James Baldwin that "we were not expected to aspire to excellence; we were expected to make peace with mediocrity."
When combined with governmental inaction and societal indifference, the abdication of personal responsibility has devastated what were -- in the time of the Big Four -- poor, but thriving, communities. The retreat from the old-time values that once served as the bedrock of our society has let the bacteria of crime spread in our neighborhoods. Children are thoughtlessly created and then not cared for. Fathers are not meaningfully involved in the lives of their children. Almost 70% of black children are born out of wedlock. Of the 474 units in the largest public housing complex in Washington, D.C., 436 households are headed by women. We have in the recent past asked too much of our women and too little of our men. The notion of hard work has been devalued. Drug use and violence have been permitted to flourish. Too much of our music, our films and television debase women. All of these problems -- plus others -- have combined to limit our freedom.
This lack of freedom, however, is by no means confined to only people of color and the poorest parts of our cities. A few moments ago I asked, "How free are black people in 1999?" Well, let me pose another question: "How free are white people in 1999." The dysfunction resulting from our society's retreat from values is rising in the majority community just as it is in the minority community, thereby also making whites the prisoners of their own drug use, sexual irresponsibility, unwed motherhood, and criminal involvement. Moreover, the tentacles of fear have reached EVERY corner of ALL of our communities, and thus NO ONE can truly be free. Even in those areas of relative affluence, how many alarms have been bought, how many night time activities have been curtailed, how much peace of mind has been lost, because poverty and deprivation have been allowed to fester in other areas and, consequently, violence and fear permitted to breed everywhere? Dr. King once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." How right he was. NONE of us is truly free until ALL of us are truly free, and we as a society must finally recognize the fact that we are more bound to one another in this country than we have been willing to admit.
Our politicians, our business leaders, our community activists, we as individuals -- regardless of race, ethnic origin, political persuasion, or economic status -- have a responsibility, a duty, to address this situation. And the most crucial first step we must take in this process is to care about ALL of our children. We all must be involved in crafting solutions to improve the conditions in which they live.
One of the things that I find most distressing about discussions about the needs of our children is the way in which the most seriously affected young people are described. They are invariably referred to as "black kids," "inner city kids, " "poor kids," "kids from the ghetto." The one thing they are never called is what they truly are: that is- American kids. Until they are thought of in that way, they, and their problems, will be marginalized, and go largely unresolved. And so, we as a society must get to the point where we view ALL of our children as part of the American whole and craft American solutions to their problems.
The same principle holds true when fashioning solutions for the problems that afflict us as a nation. We all must begin to accept the fact that there are no problems that just confront "them," that confront "minorities"; there are only problems that confront we Americans.
Another immutable truth is that we ALL must promote integration. Integration is not to be valued because minority groups will somehow magically be transformed by their interaction with whites. It is an important concept because it forces people to ultimately deal with one another as individuals free of the stereotypes that are so strangely comforting to too many of us. The Big Four would be dismayed and disheartened to see what we are allowing to happen in our nation. The racial divide that separates us is large, and is in danger of becoming larger. Every thinking person in this nation should not only be disturbed by the enormity of the racial gap, they should be speaking out about it and devising ways in which this breach, which is so negatively affecting America, can be healed. Yet, at most times it seems that there is only deafening silence, or that the voices of disharmony and distrust -- both black AND white -- are able to drown out the voices of reason and responsibility.
This immutable truth -- that integration is good -- has, for no good reason, fallen out of favor in some quarters of our society. We must use integration to begin a conversation between the races, and not just talk within each race about the other. To be sure, this will be initially awkward, even painful, but it is absolutely necessary. We must also understand that we all carry some racial baggage that makes each of us unique in our perceptions and outlooks. But by recognizing these facts and putting them into context, the exchanges can be particularly fruitful. The days when we can gloss over this issue are gone. Demons can only be exorcized when they are confronted head on.
I have great hope for the future. Just thirty-six years ago in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, an attempt was made to deny a young woman by the name of Vivian Malone the fundamental right to obtain an education at a public institution simply because of the color of her skin. Though a fourth generation Alabaman, the only way that she could attend the University of Alabama was through an Executive Order issued by President Kennedy which directed federal troops to force their way in to the school and to accompany Ms. Malone as she entered. Tragically, the very same day that Vivian Malone first entered that university, Meadger Evers was gunned down in cold blood by a white man who was filled with racial hatred and who was initially acquitted on racial grounds by a jury of his peers. And yet, thirty-six years later, something almost miraculous has occurred. Meadger Evers' killer has been brought to justice and is behind bars. And that young woman who was barred from the University of Alabama simply because she was black received a formal and public apology from George Wallace, the man who was the governor of Alabama at the time of the incident and who was instrumental in preventing her from entering her state's university. I know this story well because that young woman, Vivian Malone, who had the courage and the determination to force others to do what she knew was right, is the sister of my wife. I am extraordinarily proud of my sister-in-law, and her story stands as a testament to what we have achieved as a nation in the last thirty-six years. But what is more, Vivian's story stands as a testament to what we can continue to achieve in the NEXT thirty-six years, if we put forth our best effort. The dimension of the challenge that we face was stated by President Kennedy the same day that Vivian was admitted and Meadger Evers died. The President said that evening on national television that the issue was not a sectional one nor partisan one. He stated, "It is not even a legal or legislative issue alone....We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."
And so, like Dr. King before us, we all -- "white s ... and black s ... , Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics" -- must struggle together as one to get to the place where Messrs. King, Young, Farmer and Wilkins directed us. The place where we can be proud of our diversity and celebrate our unity. The place where ability and effort trump race and color. The mountaintop where we can see to the far horizons of this land we love, and know with quiet conviction that this nation is truly blessed because it is truly fair and because all its citizens are truly free. Thank you very much.