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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s Swearing-In as 64th Attorney General
Washington, D.C. ~ Friday, January 21, 2011

To Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy family, to our distinguished guests, to my colleagues, and to those who have served and supported our nation’s Department of Justice – it is my pleasure, and my great honor, to welcome you to the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building.

Today, we come together to celebrate the achievements and enduring contributions of our nation’s 64th Attorney General – a man whose legacy continues to guide us, whose memory continues to touch us, and whose example continues to inspire us.

As we reflect on his remarkable life, we also mourn the recent loss of another great champion for justice – Robert Kennedy’s dear friend and brother-in-law – Sargent Shriver. Sargent Shriver served our country in many ways: as an advocate for equal rights, as an Ambassador for this nation, and as an innovator in promoting global understanding and healing. Throughout his life, he worked to live up to his brother-in-law’s charge to all of us: to rely on the power of "deeds, not talk" to make a difference.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the Shriver and Kennedy families – just as they are also with the family of Robert Kennedy’s long-time and trusted assistant, Angie Novello.

On Tuesday of this week, we lost both of these public servants. But, this afternoon, their presence is felt. As one member of the Kennedy family put it best – Sarge is smiling down on us today.

I believe he is. For this is, indeed, a special occasion.

For me, it is a tremendous privilege to be joined by so many former Department leaders who have made this a truly historic reunion. With us, we have former Attorneys General, and a cadre of Assistant Attorneys General, First Assistants, Administrative Aides, line attorneys, and support staff who worked alongside Attorney General Kennedy – in the Criminal Division, the Lands Division, the Antitrust Division, the Tax Division, the Civil Rights Division, and the Attorney General’s Office, among other components. If you were part of the Justice Department from 1961 to1964, please stand so that we may recognize you.

Thank you all for being here and for helping us pay tribute to one of America’s most committed public servants – and one of this Department’s most effective leaders. There is much to admire about Robert Kennedy. And there is much to learn from his tenure as Attorney General – even now, exactly 50 years after Robert Kennedy stood with his older brother in the East Room of the White House and swore the oath of his new office.

Like many of you, I can still remember those days.

I can still remember sitting in the basement of my childhood home in Queens, watching – on our little black-and-white television – the inauguration of a young, charismatic new President. That was January 20th, 1961 – half a century ago. I was in the fourth grade. And I can still recall my mother’s enthusiasm, my father’s pride, and my own sense and certainty that something exciting – something important – was happening.

The following day was marked by another historical moment, when Attorney General Robert Kennedy was sworn in and – after Justice Department guards initially turned him away for lack of an ID card – was finally shown to his office on the 5th floor of this building.

That was January 21st, 1961.

My understanding of the Attorney General – as a visionary, as a force for progress, and as a model of leadership – had not yet taken form. But it would soon enough.

Just two years later, there was much talk about Attorney General Kennedy – and the successful effort that he led to integrate the University of Alabama. On June 11, 1963, my family watched – and celebrated – news reports that two brave, young students had stepped past Governor George Wallace to become the first African Americans to enroll in the university.

Years later, one of those students – a wonderful woman named Vivian Malone Jones –would become my sister-in-law. Long before I married her sister, Vivian became the University of Alabama’s first African-American graduate. Shortly after earning her degree, she moved to Washington and began her career right here – in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

Vivian passed away several years ago, but – throughout her life – she was inspired by, and grateful for, the courage that was shown by this Department under Attorney General Kennedy’s leadership.

The results of that famous "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" – the progress that it marked, the commitment that it signaled, and the justice that it ensured – served as my first lesson from Attorney General Kennedy, even if it would take many years before I could fully understand it. I learned that the law is not an abstraction. It is a powerful tool – that can either build walls or build bridges. It is a strong, deft instrument that affects that lives and circumstances of real people and real communities – for good or for ill. It is an effective means to transform our society – into one that serves the interests of many or the few.

No one can doubt how Robert Francis Kennedy chose to use the law when he was Attorney General. And he taught us that that law can be a powerful force for good – if we are willing, as he was, to roll up our sleeves, to summon our best efforts, and to lead from the front lines of change. In so doing, Attorney General Kennedy championed the cause of the least among us – and made our nation more just, more fair, and more humane.

The lessons of his life inspired my own decision, after finishing law school, to come to work in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division – just as Robert Kennedy did shortly after he graduated from law school. I arrived here in 1976 – a dozen years after Attorney General Kennedy had left the Department. Yet his presence was still felt. And memories of him were – still – often shared.

I was told stories of how he’d walk the hallways of this building – ducking into the offices, startling and amazing Department employees. I heard that those who visited the 5th floor were likely to see his dog, Brumus, or young Kennedy children running by. And I learned that anyone who ran into Attorney General Kennedy in the hallway was likely to be pulled into his office – and into whatever case he was working on. From this very chair, which sat at his desk throughout his time here, Attorney General Kennedy called on his team to reinvigorate the Department’s mission – and to approach the great challenges of the day, not as problems to be contained or kicked down the road, but as crises to be solved.

As a young line attorney, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity, and the honor, of taking on the role that Robert Kennedy once assumed – a position that the work of leaders like him made possible for someone like me to achieve.

With this honor, comes an obligation – a duty to extend, and to strengthen, the work that he began here.

In his first speech as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy argued that the time for apathy had long since passed, and that it was time to, "[prove] to the world that we really mean it when we say that all men are created free and equal before the law."

"All of us," he said, "might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world – but we don't. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity."

Despite all that’s been accomplished in recent decades, we – still – do not live in tranquil times. We continue to face difficulty, injustice, division, and an array of challenges that will serve to sharpen our skills, steel our resolve, focus our energy, and impel us to action.

In times like these, the importance of Robert Kennedy’s work becomes ever clearer.

And I am proud to report that, in today’s Department of Justice, this work goes on – in our offices, before our courts, and out in our communities. It goes on in our appeals to those in power and in our aspirations for those in need. It goes on in our efforts to protect our national security, to safeguard civil liberties, to expand opportunities, to prevent and reduce violence and crime, to combat the causes and consequences of hate, to uphold the Constitution, to strengthen the rule of law, to protect the most vulnerable among us, and to honor the values that were at the root of Attorney General Kennedy’s actions and the heart of his decisions: integrity, inclusion, tolerance, and – above all – justice.

So, as we celebrate Robert Kennedy’s life and his impact on this Department, let us also commit ourselves to carrying on – and carrying out – his mission to make gentle the life of this world, and to make good on the promise of our nation. Let us answer his call, "to face up to our nation’s problems and live up to its founding principles." And let us heed the wisdom of his extraordinary example.

This afternoon – from our video tribute, from our panelists’ discussion, and from the words and memories that his beloved daughter, Kathleen, is here to share – we have the chance to see a fuller picture of Robert Kennedy – and to expand our understanding of this man and his vision, as well as our ability to emulate his actions.

Half a century ago, Robert Kennedy proved that a single person has the power to improve the world around us. Today, fifty years later, his example remains emblazoned on the hearts and souls of the American people, and his voice echoes through the generations – calling on us to shoulder our responsibility to serve, to serve, and to serve.

This lesson – and this message – still points us down the path that Robert Kennedy never finished traveling.

So, let us keep going.

Let us continue his fight for a world free from injustice.

Let us move forward – despite the obstacles before us and the cynics around us – toward progress.

Let us act with optimism, without delay, and with adherence to the highest standards of professionalism – the very standards that Attorney General Kennedy established.

And let us signal to all the world that, in America today, the spirit of Robert Kennedy lives on – in his family, in his former colleagues, in this Department of Justice, and – above all – in each of you.

Thank you.

And, now, it’s my pleasure to join you in watching a Department-made film tribute to Attorney General Kennedy, which we have created in his honor and in an attempt to share who the man in that portrait behind me – the man who once sat in the chair beside me – was, to his staff, to this Department, and to our nation.

But, first, we have a special treat – a video message from someone who very much wanted to be with us today: the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

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I want to thank each of our panelists for sharing their insights and remarkable experiences with us. And, now, it’s my honor to turn today’s program over to Kathleen Kennedy Townsend – the first of Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s eleven children, the 66th Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, and an alumna of the Department’s Office of Justice Programs.

Like her father, and like so many in her family, Kathleen’s life and career have been defined by a commitment to public service. And we are honored that she has returned to the Department today to help us honor her father and to speak on behalf of her family.

Please join me in welcoming Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Related Resources:

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