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Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks at Press Conference Announcing Civil Rights Enforcement Unit
Birmingham, Ala. ~ Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Good morning, and thank you all for joining us for this important announcement. It is an honor to be here with Joyce and her staff in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Joyce is deeply committed to protecting the civil rights of the communities she serves. And the attorneys and professionals in her office have been invaluable partners to the Department of Justice throughout my tenure at the Civil Rights Division. Today’s announcement commemorates that partnership, and will strengthen it for years to come.

 

I extend my sincere congratulations to everyone in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the civil rights advocates and stakeholders on the ground, and the communities throughout Northern Alabama who worked so hard in recent months to make this Civil Rights Unit possible.

 

This announcement is all the more special because of where we are today. I first toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute two years ago. I had the opportunity then to see what a great and living monument this Institute is to Birmingham’s rich history in the civil rights movement. It is important that we are here together now, during the 20th anniversary of the Institute, to look back at that history – and to look forward together to how far we have to travel to realize the vision of the brave men and women memorialized on these walls.

 

The eyes of the world watched as centuries of our nation’s troubled history of race relations played out in these streets a half century ago. Residents of Birmingham, many of them children, marched through this city demanding access to the promise of our founding documents. They exposed themselves to great physical violence, and far too many lives were stolen by that fight. But their struggle was not in vain. This city was the eye of the storm that sparked revolutionary change.

 

To visit these sacred sites is a reminder of how far we have come. Our nation has made great progress toward the promise of equal opportunity and equal justice. Just days ago, we watched as thousands of young people lined up request consideration for temporary relief from removal . These are people who came to this country as children, with loved ones who sought to give them a chance at a better life. They are students and veterans who represent the best of what America has to offer. More than anything, they want to pursue their dreams and contribute to this country, a country that they know and love as their own.

 

Given the progress we’ve made, it is not surprising that I frequently encounter people who wonder why, in 2012, we still need a Civil Rights Division. Like all of us, they are proud of the progress we’ve made as a nation. They see an African-American President and an African American Attorney General. They see a growing number of minorities and women serving in Congress. They see an African American and a Latina on the Supreme Court. And they assume that these great symbols of progress mean that our journey is complete.

 

But this morning, I had the opportunity to meet with 21st century civil rights advocates who remind us all that the fight is not finished. They understand that, for so many of our neighbors, true equal opportunity and true equal justice remain just out of reach. Far too many of our brothers and sisters still live in the shadows of life.

 

Even as thousands of young immigrants to the United States are reaching for a second chance, thousands of schoolchildren in Alabama are starting the school year under the specter of H.B. 56. Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that all students, no matter their immigration status, must be welcome in our nation’s schools. Yet far too many children are being kept from the classroom, just as far too many children have yet to see the truly equal educational environment they were promised in perhaps the most well known Supreme Court ruling in our nation’s history more than five decades ago.

 

Together, the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office work to enforce the law, which protects these basic principles:

 

-           Expanding opportunity and access for all people – the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to earn, the opportunity to live where one chooses, the opportunity to move up the economic ladder, the opportunity to realize one’s highest and best use.

-           Ensuring that the fundamental infrastructure of democracy is in place – by protecting the right to vote, and by ensuring that communities have effective and democratically accountable policing.

-           And protecting the most vulnerable among us so that they can move out of the shadows and into the sunshine – by ensuring they can live in their communities free from fear of exploitation, discrimination, and violence.

 

Operating under those principles, we work every day to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws – all of the laws – and to do so independently and evenhandedly. Through that effort, we carry forward the legacy of this city.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested for the 13th time on here the streets of Birmingham nearly fifty years ago. At the time, he faced criticism from his fellow clergymen for the peaceful demonstration that led to his arrest. They worried that, by drawing attention to injustice and hate, he was acting too soon and protesting too much. They told him that his actions were “unwise.”

 

Dr. King understood that the action he had taken was necessary and right. From a narrow cell in a Birmingham jail, he reminded his critics that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and that in our effort to protect justice, we must rise up to face those who disagree. He wrote that he was not afraid to cause tension, for those who push back against injustice are those “that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

 

Here in Birmingham, we see what Dr. King’s “tension” accomplished. At the same time, are reminded that we must also continue to forge ahead. Perhaps in this city more than any other that dichotomy is palpable – the push and pull between celebrating our great achievements for civil rights, and recognizing that each milestone has been a checkpoint along the way rather than the culmination of our fight for equal justice and equal opportunity.

 

The Civil Rights Division is honored to partner with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama as we continue that struggle, and to be here to announce the new Civil Rights Unit of the office today.

 

Thank you.

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