Thank you, Congressman Crowley. It is a pleasure to be with you and a privilege to be part of what has become – because of your commitment and hard work – a wonderful annual tradition.
Let me also thank you for putting me in such good company – among so many old friends, distinguished leaders, and two very accomplished honorees. To Assemblyman [Jeff] Aubry and Committeewoman [Barbara] Brown, congratulations.
I also want to acknowledge a few people I’m very glad to see tonight: Mrs. Anne Mayo and everyone who is here from the Elmcor Senior Citizens Center from my old neighborhood in Queens. That was a very special place to my mother. And, although I miss her every day and wish that she could be here tonight, I am grateful – and I am touched – that so many of my mother’s friends have joined us.
In addition to being with you, it’s great to be home. Like quite a few of you, I grew up in Queens. And I stayed in New York for both college and law school.
One of the great blessings of my life was being raised by parents and grandparents who held a deep appreciation for this country and, in particular, for this great city. My father and each one of my grandparents arrived in New York from the great island of Barbados. Like so many who have set out toward America’s shores over the years, they came to this country with little more than a sense of its history and an unwavering faith in its future.
Today, as we commemorate Black History Month, we honor our nation’s past. But we must also reaffirm our vision of the future that we will share and, together, must build.
That dream of progress and of opportunity – the dream that spurred my own family and so many of yours to seek out a new life in a distant land – continues to inspire us. It continues to challenge us to carry on – and to carry forward – the work of our predecessors. And it continues to call us to the service of our nation and our fellow citizens.
This dream is what sparked my own interest in the law, my study of the law, and every step of a career spent serving and trying to perfect our justice system. But I was also motivated by what I saw and experienced here in New York. Growing up on the streets of East Elmhurst and Harlem, I saw the struggles of people who’d been left out and left behind – people who’d lost faith in seeing the promise of justice fulfilled in their lifetimes.
Years later, in Manhattan, I witnessed first hand the power of the law to change lives. During law school, I spent a summer interning at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund, where I had the chance to learn about, and even work on, some of the most important discrimination suits of the day. I also saw how the work of dedicated attorneys can help to restore hope, to rebuild dreams, and to reverse the causes and consequences of injustice.
I wanted to become one of those lawyers. I wanted to be part of a profession that, since our nation’s earliest days, has taken up the challenge of achieving and administering justice – and of ensuring equal justice and opportunity.
I was encouraged by the stories and examples of those who blazed the paths that we now travel – and whose contributions we honor this evening. Throughout my life, I have been inspired, especially, by the many lawyers throughout history who chose to serve the cause of justice, even though they were excluded by our nation’s system of justice. Without their contributions, our nation would not have seen the progress that we’ve gathered to celebrate. And without their sacrifices, an African-American boy from Queens could never be standing before you, as our nation’s 82nd Attorney General. We must never forget that. And we must never lose sight of this country’s history of achievement.
Of course, America’s story includes its share of setbacks, but – ultimately – it is defined by steps forward.
Leaders like Congressman Crowley, and the generations of patriots and public servants who have made this nation a beacon of hope and an example of strength, have always made sure of that.
Every person in this room – regardless of the neighborhood or nation where you grew up – is part of a long line of trailblazers. And I think it’s particularly significant – and encouraging – that we have such a diverse crowd gathered here to commemorate Black History Month.
For 85 years now, since Black History Week was first established in 1926, Americans have been coming together each February to reflect on how far our nation – and, especially our African-American community – have traveled on the long road toward equality and freedom. But I believe that Black History Month provides more than an occasion to remember the achievements that have defined America’s story. It is also a time to set our course for the days ahead.
I would argue that we can only begin building the future we want for our country, for ourselves, and for our children, by looking back on this nation’s long history of struggle and success. We must understand and learn from the past we share and that some have endured. We must draw strength from it. And, perhaps most important, we must, together, make peace with it.
Since America’s earliest days, its citizens have been striving to fulfill the promise of our justice system. I have great faith in this system. And while I’d argue that our legal system is one of the most critical pillars – and most laudable aspects – of our democracy, I also realize that it hasn’t always exemplified our highest ideals.
Despite the advancements that we’ve seen – even in my own lifetime – it wasn’t so long ago that African Americans were prevented from owning property, from obtaining homes or business loans, from joining labor unions, and – in many respects – from being allowed to contribute to the strength and growth of our economy as other citizens could.
There was a time – not only when obstacles to our financial markets were insurmountable to most people of color – but when our legal system undermined the very rights and privileges it existed to protect. There was a time when the American principles of justice, liberty, and opportunity were applied unequally to women and men and to people of different races.
Black History Month calls on us to confront this past – a history that can be disturbing at times but that is always revealing. This history is a powerful reminder of the persistent effects of injustice, and of the long-term consequences that racial bias can cause. Today, it helps to drive and focus the Justice Department’s work to strengthen civil rights protections in employment, housing, and voting. And it should fuel our collective commitment to ensure that the contributions and sacrifices made by those who came before us were not made in vain and are never taken for granted.
We all owe much to those past generations – and to leaders and citizens who believed so deeply in the values and promise of this nation that, even when America sometimes let them down, they did not give up. But despite the progress that’s been made in creating a more equal nation, we have more to do. It may be tempting – when you look at the many accomplished leaders in this room, or at the diversity of people walking the halls of Congress, or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equal justice has been achieved for all Americans. But the truth is that America remains a work in progress. And that our justice system, and our society, still does not fully reflect the values and principles enshrined in our nation’s founding documents.
We may have overcome many of the problems that African Americans in this city – and across the country – once faced, but we still have challenges to confront and to overcome – challenges that disproportionately affect people of color. Here, in the world’s greatest city – there are neighborhoods where young people are more likely to go to prison than to college; and where kids who have not yet reached their teenage years – already – have sworn allegiance to a life of violence and crime.
But being here today – among so many colleagues, partners, and friends, in the city where my earliest and biggest dreams took shape – I cannot help but be optimistic about the future.
I still believe in Dr. King’s assurance that, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I still believe what I was told so often as a child – that America’s best days are yet to come. And I believe this because of the progress that I’ve witnessed during my own lifetime and the healing I’ve seen.
I remember the pride I felt as a child, as I cheered on the Brooklyn Dodgers and their star second baseman, Jackie Robinson. I remember the awe I felt as a boy, when I watched Vivian Malone – a woman who later became my sister-in-law – step past George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. As a teenager, I felt the scope of my own dreams expand the day that I saw Thurgood Marshall take his historic place on our nation’s highest court. And as a man, I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve alongside our nation’s first African-American President, Barack Obama.
Today – and throughout, and even beyond, this month – let us remember that this progress was never inevitable. It took ordinary people – no different than you or me – to turn a mere possibility of progress into reality, day after day, cause after cause – even when the pace of change seemed slow, if not halting. You have that power to create positive change. And all of us have that responsibility.
Now, we must summon our best efforts. We must pool our energy and skills. And, if we do, our nation will continue to grow to be consistent with our dreams for its future and worthy of its founding documents.
Think of all that we can – and will – achieve. Believe in our Nation. Mindful of our past and committed to a better future, let us, together, make real the promise of America.