Thank you, Richard [Toscano], for your kind words and, especially, for the work that you and your colleagues in the Equal Employment Opportunity Office – and across the Justice Management Division – have done to help the Department commemorate Black History Month. In fact, you’ve done such great work that we decided to extend the celebration into the first few days of March.
Thank you all for joining us today. I especially want to thank Rhea [Walker] – and the members of the Cardozo High School Color Guard – for sharing your talents with us and helping to make this program so special.
I also want each of the Cardozo students here to know that you – along with your classmates and teachers – have been, and will continue to be, in our thoughts and prayers. The recent incident involving one of your fellow students – 18-year-old senior, Lucki Pannell – was a senseless and tragic act of violence. Let me assure you today that, as our local law enforcement partners work to investigate this case and strengthen community safety – and as D.C.’s United States Attorney, Ron Machen, and his team continue their work to seek justice – they have my full support. And you have the full support of our nation’s Department of Justice.
Despite recent heartbreak and ongoing threats, despite the persistent problems that we still face and the unprecedented challenges that we now must confront – today, we have an important opportunity. Each year, as we commemorate Black History Month, we are called to reconnect – and to rededicate ourselves – to the principles at the core of all that we stand for, and all that we fight for, in this Department. And I believe that, together, we must seize this moment – not only to reflect on how far our nation – and, especially, its African-American community – has traveled on the long road toward equality and freedom. We must also consider how much further we still have to go.
Just over a month ago – in this Great Hall – many of you joined with me as some of our nation’s most prominent civil-rights leaders gathered to share their experiences from the early 1960’s – and their memories of how the Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, inspired much of the progress that we celebrate today. Exactly 50 years after Attorney General Kennedy swore the oath of his new office, we were reminded of just how central the work that goes on in this building – and in Justice Department offices across the country – is to creating a more equal, more fair, and “more perfect” union.
But today’s theme – African-Americans and the Civil War – invites us to turn the clock back even further – exactly a century and a half ago – to 1861. During that era, African Americans suffered more than unequal treatment at lunch counters, schools, voting booths, and public spaces. In many corners of this country, they suffered unequal treatment as human beings – and were bought and sold as property.
You all know this history. But what you may not know is that – even though their country gave them little in return – a band of free African Americans chose to serve this country and, in some cases, to sacrifice everything for the cause of freedom and the burgeoning American Dream. Many African Americans – two hundred thousand of them, in fact – took up arms in the Civil War, just as they had in every American war since 1689 – and just as they have in every war since.
Now, 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 they were inspired by the same ideal that guides your work – and my own – even today: faith in justice.
In 2011, the work of seeking and ensuring justice – for all Americans – goes on. As members of this Department and as servants of our fellow citizens, each of us has a role to play in advancing our nation’s story of progress – and America’s ongoing struggle to live up to its founding principles.
Of course, we can all be proud of the work that’s been done over the last two years to strengthen efforts to safeguard civil rights – and to protect the most vulnerable among us. And we should all be encouraged that – across all of our components – we are working to ensure that all Americans have an equal opportunity to serve, and to thrive, in this Department.
That said, we cannot – and will not – become complacent. We must build on the progress that our nation has seen – and that the Justice Department has helped to lead.
As we honor our nation’s past – and reaffirm our vision for the future that we will share and, together, must build – we are fortunate to be joined by one of the most energetic and talented lawyers and leaders I know: Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division, Tony West.
As many of you have seen firsthand, Tony is an outstanding steward of the Justice Department’s largest litigating division. In addition to strengthening all the Division’s traditional missions, he and his team have brought our nation’s fight against health-care, financial, and consumer fraud to new levels. And they have represented the best interests of our nation with integrity, with professionalism, and with extraordinary success. In addition, Tony is playing a critical role in implementing the Department’s Diversity Management Plan and currently serves as Vice-Chair of our Diversity Management Council.
Like me, Tony joined the Department of Justice barely a year out of law school. However, he started just a few years after I did. His dedication to the Department is obvious – and I am extremely grateful for his contributions, his advice, his leadership, and his friendship.
As Tony knows well, and as I’m sure he will talk about today, Black History Month is about more than recounting the aspirations and achievements of the past. It is also our invitation to dream anew, to work together, and to move our nation toward the moment when our vision of equal opportunity – and equal justice – is a reality for all.
Thank you. Please join me in welcoming Assistant Attorney General Tony West.