As prepared for delivery
Thank you, Reverend [Al] Sharpton. I appreciate your kind words, but I am especially grateful for your prayers – and for your partnership, your friendship, and your tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless, and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill.
It is a privilege to join with you and Reverend [Franklyn] Richardson – and with Executive Director Tamika Mallory, and so many distinguished religious leaders, elected officials, committed activists, and concerned citizens – in kicking off the National Action Network’s 14th Annual Convention. I am honored to be included in this annual gathering once again – and to bring greetings from President Obama.
Each April, this convention provides an important opportunity – not only to observe the anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic death, and to reflect upon the lessons of his extraordinary life – but also to consider where we are, as a nation; to examine our values and priorities; to take stock of our progress; and to take responsibility for the work that remains before us.
Although 44 years have passed since our nation first mourned the loss of Dr. King, it is clear that his spirit lives on. His enduring contributions have allowed me to stand on this stage as our nation’s first African-American Attorney General, and to serve alongside our first African-American President. And the dream that he shared – on the National Mall that now includes a memorial in his honor – has inspired countless acts of compassion and collaboration, including the creation of the National Action Network more than two decades ago.
Since then, this organization’s leaders, members, and supporters have been on the front lines of our nation’s fight to ensure security, opportunity, and justice for all. Today, this work goes on in your demands to those in power and in your aspirations for those in need. It goes on in your efforts to safeguard civil rights, to ensure voting rights, to expand learning and employment opportunities, to strengthen our criminal justice system, to achieve fairness in our immigration and sentencing policies, and to prevent and combat violence and crime – especially among our young people.
On each of these fronts, you are carrying on – and carrying forward – the work of a leader who, I believe, does stand as America’s greatest “drum major for justice” – a man of action and of faith, whose example continues to guide us; and whose words still have the power to comfort and to teach us – especially in moments of difficulty and consequence.
Dr. King was no stranger to such moments. Throughout his life and – most famously – on the eve of his death, as he delivered the legendary “Mountaintop” speech that would be his final sermon, Reverend King asked himself when – if given the choice of any period in time – he would choose to be alive.
This question began with a journey through the ages. At each stop – whether Mount Olympus or ancient Rome, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation or Roosevelt’s call to fear only fear itself – Dr. King asked himself what era he would choose to experience and help shape. His own, he ultimately decided, explaining that happiness comes from embracing the blessings and burdens of destiny and the opportunities that accompany living in times of unprecedented – and even heartbreaking – challenge.
“Only when it is dark enough,” Dr. King said, “can you see the stars.”
Today, once again, it is dark enough.
Despite the extraordinary progress that has marked the last four decades and transformed our entire society, the unfortunate fact is that – in 2012 – our nation’s long struggle to overcome injustice, to eliminate disparities, to bridge long-standing divisions, and to eradicate violence has not yet ended. And while we have not yet reached the Promised Land – I believe that, today, once more, we can see the stars.
We see them in the courage and commitment of ordinary people nationwide – of all ages, races, and backgrounds – who refuse to allow fear and frustration to divide the American people; who continue to fight for the safety and civil rights of all; and who – in recent weeks, in the wake of a tragedy we’re struggling to understand – have called, not just for answers and justice, but also for civility and unity, and for a national discourse that is productive, respectful, and worthy of our both forebears and our children.
This conversation is critical. It must be consistently elevated and advanced – and not just in times of crisis. After all, our nation will be defined, and its future will be determined, by the support that we provide – and the doors that we open – for our young people; and by the steps we take, not only to keep them safe and to seek justice on their behalf – but also to stamp out the root causes of violence, discrimination, disparity, and division.
These efforts could not be more important or more urgent – and, as you’ll discuss this week, that’s especially true in African-American communities.
Just consider the fact that, even though overall national crime rates are at historic lows, today the leading cause of death for young black men – those aged fifteen to twenty four – is homicide. And that, on average, 16 young people are murdered every day.
How can our nation risk losing so many of tomorrow’s leaders, teachers, artists, scientists, attorneys – and pastors? The answer, of course, is that we can’t.
I know that many of you are greatly – and rightly – concerned about the recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young man whose future has been lost to the ages.
As most of you know, three weeks ago, the Department of Justice launched an investigation into this incident, which remains open at this time – and prevents me from talking in detail about this matter. However, I can tell you that, in recent weeks, Justice Department officials – including Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Tom Perez, and United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Robert O’Neill – have traveled to Sanford, Florida, to meet with the Martin family, the community, and local authorities. The FBI is assisting local law enforcement officials. And representatives from the Community Relations Service – the Justice Department’s “peacemakers” – are continuing to meet with civil rights leaders, law enforcement officers, and area residents to address – and to help alleviate – community tensions. We’re also communicating closely with local, state, and federal representatives and officials.
In all of these discussions, we’re listening carefully to concerns – and emphasizing that the Department will conduct a thorough and independent review of the evidence.
Although I cannot share where current efforts will lead us from here, I can assure you that, in this investigation – and in all cases – we will examine the facts and the law. If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action. And, at every step, the facts and the law will guide us forward.
I also can make you another promise: that – at every level of today’s Justice Department –preventing and combating youth violence and victimization is, and will continue to be, a top priority.
As our nation’s Attorney General – and as the father of three teenagers – I am determined to make the progress our young people need and deserve. And I am proud that, under this Administration, the Justice Department has made an historic commitment to protecting the safety – and potential – of our children.
In fact, for the first time in history, the Department is directing significant resources for the express purpose of reducing childhood exposure to violence and raising awareness of its ramifications. Through the Department’s landmark Defending Childhood Initiative – which I launched in 2010 – along with our National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, we’re working alongside key stakeholders to develop and implement strategies for reducing violence. We’re also advancing scientific inquiry on its causes and characteristics. And we’re exploring ways to counter its negative impact.
We are also making much-needed investments in youth mentoring programs, as well as juvenile justice and reentry initiatives. And we’re working with the Department of Education – as well as state, local, and community leaders and stakeholders – to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and to ensure that our schools are gateways to opportunity, not entry points to our criminal justice system.
Beyond these efforts, we’re working in a range of other innovative ways to ensure fairness and expand opportunity – from successfully advocating for the elimination of the unfair and unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses – to launching a new, Department-wide Diversity Management Initiative.
And, of course, I’m especially proud of the steps we’ve taken to restore and reinvigorate the Civil Rights Division, and to ensure that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our immigrant communities and our voting booths – the rights of all Americans are protected.
Over the last three years, the Civil Rights Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases than ever before, including record numbers of police misconduct, hate crimes, and human trafficking cases. As our filings and settlements make clear, the Civil Rights Division also is aggressively – and successfully – working to combat continuing racial segregation in schools – and discriminatory practices in our housing and lending markets. In fact, last year, the Division’s Fair Lending Unit settled or filed a record number of cases – including a $335 million fair lending settlement, the largest in history – to hold financial institutions accountable for discriminatory practices directed at African and Hispanic Americans.
In recent months, the Division’s Voting Section has taken crucial steps to ensure integrity, independence, and transparency in our aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. And, as we’ve signaled through our recent actions – in South Carolina, Florida, and Texas – we will continue to oppose discriminatory practices, while also vigorously defending Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act against challenges to its constitutionality. Let me be very clear: this Administration will do whatever is necessary to ensure the continued viability of the Voting Rights Act - our nation's most important civil rights statute.
As Dr. King so often pointed out, in this great country, the ability of all eligible citizens to participate in – and to have a voice in – the work of government is not a privilege. It is a right. And protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative.
This means that we must support policies aimed at modernizing our voting systems; at ensuring that all eligible citizens have access to complete, accurate, and understandable information about where, when, and how they can cast a ballot; and at preventing and punishing fraudulent voting practices. It also demands that we engage in a thoughtful and truthful dialogue about where we should target our efforts – and where solutions are necessary.
We might begin by acknowledging the fact that instances of in-person voter fraud are extremely rare, a point that groups from different political affiliations have acknowledged, and numerous studies – by organizations from the Brennan Center to the Republican National Lawyers Association – have affirmed.
Despite its rarity, any instance of voter fraud is unacceptable – and will not be tolerated by the Department of Justice.
There’s no dispute on this issue. And there’s no reason we should allow it to distract us from our collective responsibility to ensure that our democracy is as strong, fair, and inclusive as possible. Let me be clear once again: whatever reason might be advanced, this Department of Justice will oppose any effort – any effort – to disenfranchise American citizens.
But achieving this goal cannot be the work of government alone. We will continue to need your help, your expertise, your dedication, and your partnership. And while I’m optimistic about the path we’re on and the place we’ll arrive, I cannot pretend that the road ahead will be an easy one. Many obstacles lie before us – and there are dark skies overhead. But if history is any guide – and I believe it is – positive change is frequently the consequence of unfavorable, not favorable, circumstance. Progress is oftentimes the product of darkness, not the light.
Remember: it was social frustration, and moral obligation, that brought an end to slavery and segregation; that secured voting rights for women and civil rights for all; that provided health care for our seniors and our poor; and guaranteed decent wages for our workers. It was economic turmoil that brought us the Progressive Era and the New Deal. And it was a Civil War that inspired the correction of our Constitution and the reconstruction of our Union.
Today – despite current challenges – we must find ways to renew the sacred bonds of citizenship. And we must reaffirm the principles that, for more than two centuries, have kept the great American experiment in motion.
That doesn’t mean that, on every issue, we will always agree. In this country, there will continue to be competing visions about how our government should move forward – and there must always be room for discussion, for debate, and for improvement. That’s what the democratic process is all about – creating space for the thoughtful exchange of ideas, and creating opportunities to advance the progress we hold dear.
That is our charge – and this is our moment. So let us seize the chance before us. Let us rise to the challenges of our time. And, in the spirit of Dr. King, let us signal to the world that – in America today – the pursuit of a more perfect union lives on, the march toward the Promised Land goes on, and the belief – not merely that we shall overcome, but that we will come together as a nation – continues to push us forward.
May God continue to bless our journey. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.