Thank you, Kathy [Times]. It’s a pleasure to be with you – and I want to echo President Obama’s words of thanks for all that you and your team have done to bring so many accomplished, and aspiring, journalists together. I know that the President is sorry he couldn’t be with you in person today. But I assure you – when I get back to Washington this afternoon – I will personally wish him a happy 50th birthday on your behalf.
As a long-time admirer of NABJ’s great work, I am honored to be included in this annual gathering – and to be among some of the most dedicated, and distinguished, journalists in the country. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to salute the achievements and contributions that have come to define the National Association of Black Journalists. And I am glad, as always, to be here in Philadelphia.
One of this city’s proudest sons – and one of this Association’s leading founders – Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, Acel Moore, has often said that, “There are two types of people: those who are – and those who wish they were – from Philadelphia.”
Now, as a native New Yorker, I’m not going to comment on that statement. But I do believe it’s fitting that you have gathered here this week – in the birthplace of our republic – to discuss the essential role that journalists always have – and always must – play in strengthening this nation.
Since America’s earliest days, its best journalists have championed the ideal that every participant in our society has, not only the right – but also the obligation – to hold its leaders accountable and, as President Obama just said, “to speak truth to power” by raising awareness about what is right and what is wrong.
Throughout our history, the efforts of journalists have rendered a clear picture of life in this country – of the historic achievements we have made, and the harsh realities that far too many faced. Without your work, we would not have a starting point for progress – or, in many cases, for the pursuit of justice.
Because of this, I consider journalists to be essential partners in the administration and achievement of justice. That’s not to say that lawyers and journalists always see eye-to-eye. We don’t. But we do share a professional obligation – to seek the truth.
That is a tremendous – and critically important – responsibility. It is also the guiding force for our nation’s Department of Justice. And – 36 years ago – it was the driving factor in the establishment of this Association.
Some of you may not remember back that far – and many of the students here weren’t even born. But those of us with a few gray hairs on our heads can recall a time in this country when, as Mr. Moore once put it, “If you read a newspaper… the only black people mentioned were entertainers and criminals…Black people never died, never got married. They were unremarkable…[but] the picture that was being painted wasn't an accurate picture. It wasn't a true story.”
No, it wasn’t. And, in 1975, those frustrations inspired 44 journalists to come together in a bold, unprecedented effort. In launching NABJ, they aimed to ensure that the full American story was told; that a diversity of perspectives were represented; and that the lives, struggles, and achievements of people of color – and of all those who had been left out and left behind in our society – were no longer overlooked.
It was a simple idea, but a transformative moment. And thanks to the determination of your founders – and of likeminded journalists from across the country – efforts to change the status quo, and to shine a light on disparities in both reporting coverage and in the journalism industry, took hold. And that change is a credit to NABJ’s founders, members, and supporters – even if it’s a credit you don’t often receive.
In the last three and a half decades, this Association’s membership numbers have grown from 44 to more than three thousand. And, today, NABJ stands among the top tier of professional organizations – of any industry – in the country. Your innovative work – to promote responsible and inclusive journalism; to expand educational and internship opportunities; and to provide professional development resources, as well as critical support, for men and women of color who aspire to build a career in journalism – have set you apart. And, as I look out over this crowd of current and future industry leaders, it’s obvious that your efforts have been extremely successful.
I’m especially grateful for the contributions that NABJ members have made in drawing attention to – and directing our national dialogue toward – the divisions that we must bridge, and the urgent problems that we must address. At times, your work has helped to launch investigations, to advance prosecutions, and to enhance the efforts of law enforcement. And by raising awareness about unacceptable public safety threats; widespread financial fraud; hate crimes and civil rights violations; gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled violence; organized crime operations; human trafficking victims; deficiencies in our indigent defense system; and disparities in our sentencing policies – you’ve also rallied our nation’s citizens and leaders – and, in many instances, our nation’s Justice Department – to action.
When I look back at the work that the Justice Department has done – and the extraordinary progress that this Administration has driven – over the last two and a half years, I am extremely proud. We’ve revitalized the Civil Rights Division; spearheaded new task forces to combat financial fraud; launched the landmark Access to Justice Initiative; taken unprecedented steps to protect our young people from violence and exploitation; helped to advance long-overdue hate crimes legislation; and – at long last – reduced the unfair sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offenses. But I recognize that these accomplishments may never have been realized without the work that, for years, journalists have done to put a face on the needs, and the injustices, that those of us in government – and in law enforcement – must address.
And although you, too, have good reason to be proud – you must not become complacent.
We have reached a defining moment in this country. And our nation’s journalists are uniquely positioned to help focus our national dialogue on the issues that really matter; on the challenges that will determine our nation’s future; and on the struggles that we, quite simply, cannot afford to ignore.
You can report the fact that the majority of children in this country – more than 60 percent of them – have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence; and that rates of exposure – as both witnesses to and victims of violence – are even higher in low-income and minority communities.
When conversations center on the fact that African Americans are disproportionately jailed, you can ask why we aren’t also discussing the fact that black people are also disproportionately victimized by violent crime.
You can question why, although African Americans are only about 13 percent of the nation’s population, they represent nearly 50 percent of its homicide victims; and why the leading cause of death for young black men – those aged fifteen to twenty four – is homicide.
You can challenge our fellow citizens to consider how our nation can risk losing so many of tomorrow’s teachers, physicians, artists, attorneys, and journalists to violence.
You can encourage our nation’s leaders to recognize that 1.5 million American children have a parent behind bars; that the majority of African-American households nationwide do not include a father; and that the children growing up in these households are more likely to live in poverty, to perform poorly in school, to commit crimes, and to abuse drugs.
You can shed light on the fact that – in America today – Black and Hispanic 12th graders are, on average, reading at the same level as white 8th graders; and that graduation rates for African-American males currently lag 30 percent below the rates for white males.
You can continue to ask why many of our nation’s minority communities were uniquely, and disproportionately, affected by mortgage-fraud and other financial schemes that undermined the dream of home ownership in some of our nation’s most fragile neighborhoods.
These are just a few of the serious problems we now confront. Of course, solving them is not your responsibility alone. But leading the way in sharing them – and sharing the stories of all those who are in need, at risk, and struggling against injustice in silence – is. As journalists, you have an extraordinary opportunity – and responsibility – to ensure fairness, and to expand opportunities, not only within your profession – but across our entire nation.
Make no mistake: every person in this room has benefitted from the generations of American journalists who took their professional obligations – to tell the complete story of our society – seriously. This is certainly true for me.
Growing up in Queens in the 1950s, I saw – on a daily basis – the struggles of people who’d lost faith in seeing the promise of justice fulfilled in their lifetimes. But – from the articles my parents discussed, from the headlines I read, and from the historic news reports that my mother made sure I watched – I could sense that change was coming.
Throughout the 1960s, our nation’s journalists brought the turmoil, the violence, the resilience, and the reforms that characterized the Civil Rights Era into homes – and communities – across this country. Even when I wasn’t witnessing progress in my own neighborhood, I was reading about it. I was seeing it on television. I was experiencing it.
I was fascinated, and inspired, by sit-ins and marches, by Freedom Rides and ballot drives – and by the courage of leaders like Dr. King and Medgar Evers; Rosa Parks and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. I remember the pride I felt when I learned that – in Greensboro, North Carolina – four African-American college students had courageously defied the laws of segregation and, by sitting down at Woolworth’s lunch counter, had stood up for the cause of justice. I felt the same way three years later, in 1963, as I watched reports that James Hood and Vivian Malone – a wonderful woman who later became my sister-in-law – had stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. And I was overcome with pride four years after that, when I read that Thurgood Marshall had taken his historic place on our nation’s highest court.
Although so many more barriers have been broken since then – and so many other obstacles have been overcome – we still have much to do. The work of building a more inclusive, more just, and more perfect union – for all members of our society – is not over. And it is now ours to carry forward.
On behalf of my colleagues, I want you to know that today’s Justice Department is committed to advancing this work. But we cannot make the progress we would like – or help the people who need us most – on our own.
That’s why, today, I’m here to ask each of you to keep up your work. Keep asking the tough questions. Keep shining a light on the challenges that we must face and the injustices that we must remedy. Keep working to ensure integrity and diversity in your profession. Keep insisting that the full story of America is told. And, above all, keep seeking out the truth.
Once again, I want to thank you for inviting me to speak with you, and to join you in celebrating all that NABJ has helped to achieve. I look forward to your continued progress – and to all that we will accomplish together in the days ahead. In the work of strengthening our nation, and serving the American people, I am grateful – and very proud – to count you as partners.