Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tony West Delivers Remarks at Howard University for the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Civil Rights Act
United States
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thank you so much, and good morning.  First, let me say to Miss Blessed Sheriff, you are a hard act to follow.  Thank you for sharing that inspirational poem with us.

It is an honor to be with you this morning and to introduce our next speakers.  But before I do, I just have to take a minute to say that being here, I can't help but think of my father. 

My dad was 72 when he passed last year, but when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dad was a rising senior at another HBCU, Talledega College in Alabama.  And for him, that Act opened the door to a newer world -- one that offered an alternative to the arbitrary restrictions of racial segregation that had defined his childhood growing up poor, without a father, working his grandparents' farm in rural Georgia where they were sharecroppers.

And over the next fifty years, my father's life journey embodied both the purpose and the promise of the Civil Rights Act, as he left the family farm and pursued an education, becoming the first in his family to go to college; as he left the Deep South and all that was familiar to him to raise a family in California; and as he built a successful career in business and in public service. 

Seizing that moment of opportunity created by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, my father understood -- as President Johnson recognized -- that the words written into the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were promises -- promises that reached across generations and race and religion and ethnicity and gender to embrace people never intended by its authors to be beneficiaries.

People like my dad; and people like his family.  Even as kids, my younger sisters and I knew that this Nation was far from perfect; that it had erected barriers designed to constrain my father's success, to dampen his ambition, and the ambition of others who looked like him -- who looked like us.  But Dad's experience taught us that in spite of that, there was an optimism and faith we could claim as our own about this country's possibilities.

Dad taught us that the pledge to become a More Perfect Union wasn't esoteric or theoretical; it was a pact being made with and for us, his children -- and his children's children -- and that our responsibility was to embrace the opportunities that came with that promise as fully as we possibly could.

That is the legacy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  And fifty years later, our work is to keep that spirit and purpose alive for this generation and for those to come. 

Because the challenge we inherit as we build the Civil Rights Act's next fifty years is how well we embrace the spirit of 1964 in today's fights against injustice and poverty; today's push for equal pay and freedom from gender-based violence; today's battles for LGBT rights and marriage equality. 

You see, the Civil Rights Act is a single tree rooted in the soil of equality with many branches; one movement with several offspring.  And the best commemoration we here can offer is not to be satisfied with yesterday's change, but to harness the courageous spirit that created the 1964 Act and to pay it forward in our own times.

Today, we are privileged to be joined by two national leaders who have worked tirelessly to "pay it forward" by devoting their lives to promoting justice, fairness, and equality.
 
As the head of the Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan has long been a strong advocate for equality and civil rights. From the time he was a child, growing up in his mother's after-school tutoring program on the South Side of Chicago, up through his seven years as CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and into his current role, Secretary Duncan has nurtured a deep commitment to equality of opportunity.  He has partnered with Attorney General Holder and Labor Secretary Tom Perez on numerous initiatives to advance the cause of equity and civil rights. And he’s no stranger to Howard -- he's been here several times -- even gave the commencement address here two years ago -- and we look forward to hearing from him shortly.
 
But first, I am honored to introduce a colleague and a friend. Labor Secretary Tom Perez knows well the frontlines of our ongoing fight to protect civil rights.  Prior to his current position in the President's cabinet, Secretary Perez served as the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice where he brought passionate leadership to the Department's work against discrimination in housing, employment, the criminal justice system, and education, as well as to our efforts to safeguard every citizen’s right to vote.  Now, he leads the Department of Labor, where he pushes to ensure that workers get a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.  We're fortunate he's working there, and we're pleased to have him here -- please join me in welcoming the Secretary of the Department of Labor, Tom Perez.