It’s such an honor to be here in Jackson with so many giants of the civil rights movement – men and women who, selflessly and courageously, put their lives on the line for the sake of justice.
I bring greetings on behalf of President Obama and Attorney General Holder. As the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, being here for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Freedom Rides is not only an opportunity to witness history, but a reminder of how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, and the Civil Rights Division’s role in carrying the torch.
On May 21, 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the freedom riders were joined by 1,500 people inside the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. An angry mob had formed outside. A car had been flipped over and others were burning. People were throwing rocks and bricks through the church windows. There was concern the church would be bombed. From inside the church, Dr. King phoned Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington.
Burke Marshall was the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. He was in the room with Attorney General Kennedy when the call came from Dr. King for help, and he later recalled that Kennedy assured Dr. King “The marshals are coming, the marshals are coming.” While the phone conversation continued, the first marshals arrived on the scene to help diffuse the situation.
A few days later, the Justice Department petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue an order banning discrimination on buses and at bus terminals, and in September, the new regulations were issued.
Now, no one would claim that the Justice Department or the Civil Rights Division were the heroes of the day. That accolade belongs only to the brave men and women who boarded those buses knowing the real danger they faced on the other side. But the Civil Rights Division was there to stand up to the forces insisting on continued segregation, to bring the power of the federal government to the struggle for justice.
Later that summer, Burke Marshall traveled to school districts across the South, trying to ensure they would be ready for peaceful desegregation in the fall.
The following year, when James Meredith finally enrolled at the University of Mississippi, it was John Doar of the Civil Rights Division who escorted him to the registrar’s office, and walked beside him on his first day of class.
In 1967, when 19 men were prosecuted on charges related to the murders of three civil rights workers here in Mississippi, it was the Civil Rights Division representing the federal government in court.
Congressman Lewis, Congressman Filner, other freedom riders – John Doar and the Civil Rights Division were there for you in the 1960s, and we are here for you and others who seek equal opportunity today.
Civil rights is a marathon relay. You and so many others carried the baton with great courage, and you continue to do so today. It is a solemn honor and duty for the Civil Rights Division and United States Attorneys Offices across the country to continue to serve as a conscience of the federal government. We carry the enforcement torch on behalf of African Americans seeking equal access to opportunity in education, employment and elsewhere.
We carry the torch on behalf of people with disabilities seeking equal access to opportunity.
We carry the torch on behalf of Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asians who are sailing into a headwind of intolerance, and we seek to transform that headwind of intolerance into a tailwind of inclusion.
We carry the torch on behalf of women seeking to shatter the glass ceiling at work.
We carry the torch on behalf of people who are victims of hate or violence simply because of their race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
In short, we continue, in 2011, to stand beside those in our nation who cannot make their voices heard alone. We continue to enforce some of our nation’s most cherished laws, ensuring that all individuals can realize the great promise of equal justice under the law. We continue to tackle legacy challenges, while responding to emerging challenges.
When those first freedom riders stepped off that bus here 50 years ago, it marked the culmination of a brave and harrowing journey. But it was one checkpoint along the much longer path that we continue to travel today.
It is an honor to be able to help carry forward the legacy of the heroes of our nation’s struggle for civil rights. Thank you for allowing me to be here with you today, and for everything you have done on behalf of our nation. The best tribute we can pay to you today is to continue to enforce our nation’s civil rights laws- all of those laws- fairly, aggressively and independently.