Thank you, Commissioner [Ray] Kelly. It is good to be with you, and I want to thank you – and the outstanding team that you lead – for inviting and welcoming me here.
Over the years, I’ve been privileged to get to know – and to learn from – many of you. And during a career spent working in close collaboration with law enforcement, I’ve had the pleasure of watching this police department become an example of excellence, achievement, and professionalism for our entire nation.
This evening, I am proud to be among so many members of the NYPD family. I am also grateful to be joined by one member of the Holder family – my brother, William, who – until his retirement in 1999, was a dedicated Port Authority police officer – a lieutenant – for just over 20 years.
Like many of you, my brother and I were born here in New York. We grew up in Queens. And we were raised by parents and grandparents who held a deep appreciation for this country and – in particular – for this great city.
Our father and each one of our grandparents arrived in New York from 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.
The dream of progress and of opportunity – the dream that spurred my family, and so many of yours, to seek out a new life in a distant land – continues to inspire us today. It continues to call us to the service of our nation and our fellow citizens. And it continues to challenge us to carry on – and to carry forward – the work of our predecessors.
That dream is what Black History Month is all about.
Each February – since Black History Month was established more than half a century ago – we rededicate ourselves to racial and social equality; to the work of ensuring economic opportunity; and to the values that have defined and strengthened our nation: tolerance; compassion; and – above all – justice.
Today, we must not only consider these ideals. We must keep faith in their power to heal old wounds and fuel tomorrow’s progress. And we must commit ourselves to the work of advancing them – just as our predecessors did.
Tonight, and throughout this month, we honor the achievements and contributions of those who blazed the paths on which we now tread – those who built America into what it is today.
This year’s Black History Month theme – “African Americans and the Civil War” – calls us to remember and pay tribute to a band of brothers – and a community of men and women – who sacrificed much – and, in some cases, everything – for the cause of freedom.
During the Civil War, nearly two hundred thousand African Americans served in the Union Army and Navy – and more than one in five were killed. They were part of the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, earning glory on the sands of South Carolina and newfound respect across the North. They had names like Wilson Brown and John Lawson – recipients of the Medal of Honor who – after recovering from direct fire – and, in Brown’s case, unconsciousness – refused medical treatment and continued with their duties until the Battle of Mobile Bay was won. And they had stories like that of Cathay Williams, who not only overcame one barrier – but two – to fight for her country. She disguised herself as a man – and managed to serve her country for two years.
What made these soldiers risk everything for a country that did not afford them the full rights of citizenship? What compelled them stand up for a nation that, when reunified, would contain the same citizens who had asserted the right to trade them as chattel?
I believe it was the same ideal that – today – guides your work, and my own: faith in justice.
For every injustice done – for every African-American Army soldier paid less than his white counterpart, for every freed slave barred from enlistment, for every cook denied promotion, for every black soldier told to be silent – there were those who could see the promise that tomorrow could bring just as clearly as they recalled the pain that yesterday had delivered. They summoned the “optimistic citizenship” of our Founders and – given a choice between the comfort of resignation and the risk of combat – they chose to risk it all.
This story has repeated itself throughout America’s history - at every watershed and during every war. And it continues today.
Of course, the bravery and selflessness we honor during Black History Month was not unique to African-American soldiers and public servants. It never has been, and it never will be. Unique to their experience, however, was the response that they received.
For every African-American soldier that Congress recognized during the Civil War, thousands more were told they could never rise in rank. For every battle won in part through their sacrifice, hundreds of thousands were told that they could not even enlist.
But they served anyway.
And like my immigrant father – who served in the Army during World War II – they found purpose, and honor, in defending the nation that they loved.
Now, my father never saw the kind of combat as the Tuskegee Airmen, who responded to Jim Crow Laws with a demonstration of some of the finest combat flying in military history. And he never endured the same risks as “Dorie” Miller, who – although confined to laundry and cooking duty on his base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – grabbed a gun upon the first signs of a surprise Japanese attack and fought with all his might.
But my father was a patriot. He was proud of his service. He was proud of his country. And I know he was especially proud that his faith in justice was fulfilled when President Truman finally desegregated the military in 1948 – two decades before another war, in Vietnam, would see a disproportionately high number of African Americans serving our cause overseas.
I recognize that those of us gathered here today are not soldiers of war. We are servants of justice. But it is important that we understand and acknowledge the forms of injustice that have marked our nation’s past. And it is critical for us to recognize what we owe to past generations – the many leaders, soldiers, advocates, and citizens who believed so deeply in the values and promise of this nation that, even when America sometimes let them down and left them out, they did not give up on their dreams for what this country could become.
Without their contributions – and without their optimism and their patriotism – our nation would not have seen the progress that we’ve gathered to celebrate. And without their sacrifices, an African-American boy from Queens – who grew up playing on the streets of East Elmhurst and Harlem – would not 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.
The progress that’s been made – even in my own lifetime – is nothing short of extraordinary.
I remember the pride I felt as a young 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 Governor 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 been proud – and privileged – to serve alongside our nation’s first African-American President, Barack Obama.
But we must remember that these advancements were never inevitable. It took ordinary people – no different than you or me – to turn mere possibilities into today’s reality.
And now, we must ensure that the contributions and sacrifices made by those who came before us were not made in vain, and are never taken for granted.
Even as we celebrate this evening, we also must acknowledge that America remains a work in progress.
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 obstacles to surmount.
Today, African Americans make up just over 12 percent of our population – but comprise nearly half of our nation’s murder victims. Today, 1 in 100 American adults is behind bars. But for black men between the ages of 20 and 34, 1 in 9 is currently incarcerated. Today, more than three-quarters of white, male high school students graduate, but less than half of their African-American male counterparts ever get that diploma.
Today, here in the world’s greatest city, there are neighborhoods – and they are overwhelmingly minority neighborhoods – where children are more likely to go to prison than to college. And, today, the majority of our nation’s children – more than 60 percent of them – have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence.
Even though overall crime rates have been on a steady decline across the country in recent years – and have dropped by more than 40 percent here in New York over the last decade – in our nation’s largest cities, gang activity is on the rise. And, since 2002, gun-related deaths have increased each year.
In 2010 – even though the NYPD did not lose a single officer in the line of duty – the number of law enforcement officers killed by gun violence surged by more than 40 percent. And, unfortunately, we are currently on track to exceed this number. So far in 2011, the number of officers killed by gunfire is 60 percent higher than last year’s level at this time.
Earlier this week, I attended funerals in both West Virginia and Texas to pay tribute to two young federal law enforcement officers who were slain by gunfire and, in Lincoln’s words, gave that “last full measure of devotion” to our nation.
But I refuse – and we must all refuse – to give in to disappointment, frustration, and anger. Just as surely as we cannot let our imperfect past dishearten us – we cannot let our imperfect present deter us from reaching for a “more perfect” union. Yes, there are problems to be fixed. But there also are encouraging signs all around us.
Despite the challenges of today – unprecedented threats, shrinking budgets, and growing demands – your police department has found innovative and effective ways to sow peace in some of our most dangerous and divided neighborhoods. You have advocated – not just for law and order in our communities, but for greater opportunities and increased support for our young people. You have brought law enforcement officers and community residents together and broken down long-standing barriers of division.
I know that this progress hasn’t come easily. And I recognize that your jobs have never been more difficult or demanding. But although you shoulder tremendous responsibilities, you are presented with unparalleled opportunities to make a difference.
Each of you can be a leading force in strengthening public safety, empowering communities, enhancing confidence in law enforcement, and improving lives. Each of you can – and must – extend and strengthen the advancements that we celebrate today, and throughout Black History Month.
Standing here tonight – 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 what I was told so often as a child here in this city – that America’s best days are yet to come. So, in that spirit, let us rededicate ourselves to our enduring values, to our common goals, and to our collective mission to protect the American people. Let us create a nation that lives up to our dreams, extends the work of our predecessors, and honors our founding principles.
Without question, we are fortunate to be Americans – and to be New Yorkers. Our good fortune is the result of our long tradition of sacrifice and unwavering strength of purpose. In the work of strengthening this tradition, I am grateful to count you as partners.
I believe that we can, and must, make good on the promise that has always been America. And I look forward to the day that we will – and to all that we will accomplish together.