By Attorney General Eric Holder
This past Saturday, I had the tremendous honor of joining civil rights leaders, Members of Congress, and tens of thousands of ordinary citizens at the Lincoln Memorial to observe the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Earlier this afternoon, I took part in President Obama’s historic commemoration of this event. And I was proud to stand with him in renewing my own commitment, and that of my colleagues across the U.S. Department of Justice, to building on the progress that has defined the last half century – and continuing the work that remains unfinished.
After all, as the President reminded us, “[i]n the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.” In the five decades since Dr. King stood before hundreds of thousands on the National Mall and described his dream for a more just and more equal nation, millions have worked to do just that – and this country has taken remarkable, once-unimaginable steps forward. Yet the reality is that, despite the significant strides that Dr. King and so many others have made possible, we have much more to do, and further to travel, on the road to equality and opportunity. Despite the fact that one direct beneficiary of Dr. King’s legacy now sits in the Oval Office, and another has the great privilege of serving as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States, Dr. King’s vision has not yet been fully realized.
Today, we stand on the shoulders of untold millions who fought, and rallied, and organized to make real our nation’s founding promise of equal justice under law. To these brave men and women – whose names and individual stories may be lost to history, but whose contributions must always be treasured – we owe our deepest thanks. Fifty years after their historic march, this journey goes on, and our focus has broadened to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities, and of countless others across this country who still yearn for equality, opportunity, and fair treatment.
Listening to President Obama’s inspiring words today, I was mindful of the singular legacy that’s been entrusted to each of us when it comes to extending the progress of the Civil Rights Era – and combating the bias, discrimination, disenfranchisement, and even hate-motivated violence that scars too many communities, and takes too many innocent lives, nearly every day.
So long as I have the privilege of serving as Attorney General, I pledge to do everything in my power to vigorously enforce the essential civil rights protections that earlier generations worked so hard to secure; to safeguard the progress they made; and to help bring our nation in line with our highest ideals. This means using every tool and authority available to the Justice Department to ensure that every eligible American can exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded rules, regulations, and procedures. This commitment is also evident in the sweeping changes I announced earlier this month, and which my colleagues and I are now implementing, to reform America’s criminal justice system – and to make this system smarter, fairer, and more effective.
These reforms include modifications to the Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences, so we can ensure that people convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses are no longer faced with harsh sentences that don’t take into account the facts of their individual cases, and would be more appropriate for violent criminals and drug kingpins. We’re working to increase emphasis on diversion programs, such as drug rehabilitation and community service initiatives, which can in some cases serve as effective alternatives to incarceration. And we’re supporting data-driven reinvestment strategies – and proven reentry policies – that can help to reduce prison spending, improve public safety, and enable those who have paid their debts to society to rejoin their communities as productive, law-abiding citizens.
These are important changes not only because they will usher in a more equitable and effective criminal justice system, but also because they will bring us closer to our values. They will help us to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods, to forge a more just society, and to continue building the more perfect Union that remains our common pursuit.
Half a century after Dr. King delivered a speech that altered the course of American history, today’s citizens, public servants, and community leaders are charged with writing the next chapter. This afternoon, the President reminded us that each of us must seize this breathtaking opportunity – and live up to this solemn responsibility – by recognizing that we are forever bound to one another, and recommitting ourselves to the work that lies ahead, and the journey that still stretches before us.