Justice News

Attorney General Eric Holder at the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Memorial Lecture Luncheon at the NAACP’s Centennial Convention
New York, NY
United States
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Monday, July 13, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Judge Blackburne, for that kind introduction. It is a special privilege to be with you here, as we honor the lives of Clarence Mitchell, Jr. and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, two stalwarts in the cause of equal justice. We are also here to honor the organization that they served so long and so faithfully. As the NAACP celebrates its centennial convention, we pay tribute to its unwavering demand that our nation honor the truth contained in the document that declared its independence: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

The Reconstruction Amendments enshrined this ideal in our Constitution more than forty years before the NAACP was born. But while our nation had embraced equality in principle, it was unwilling to accept equality in fact. The Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process and equal protection under law were still denied to millions of African-Americans, and our nation’s highest court had proclaimed "separate but equal" the law of the land. The federal government was still decades away from its first successful prosecution for lynching. And while the Fifteenth Amendment had opened the voting booth to millions of African-Americans, several states had devised schemes to keep the franchise locked away. In the years before the NAACP began its work in 1909, our laws were routinely subverted or ignored to deny the legal rights to which African-Americans were entitled.

That fact was made violently clear one year earlier, when Springfield, Ill., the hometown of the Great Emancipator himself, endured a horrific episode of racial violence. Houses and businesses were burned. Men were murdered and families driven from their homes. Only the intervention of thousands of troops ended the rampage.

But in the wake of that violence, a group of men and women – of different races and religions – joined together to form the organization that would become the NAACP. They set themselves to the monumental task of reconciling our nation’s laws and practices with its highest ideals, and eradicating the legal underpinnings of Jim Crow that denied millions of Americans the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

In courtrooms, legislatures and communities across this great nation, the men and women of the NAACP have championed the cause of racial equality for the last hundred years. They did so when few others would join the fight. They did so in the face of determined opposition and the threat of deadly violence. They did so against all odds. They persisted. They persevered. Ultimately, they succeeded. And they continue to do so today.

The men and women who charted this course are well known to history: W.E.B. DuBois; Mary White Ovington; Dr. Henry Moskowitz; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett and others. So too are the legal and legislative victories that their foresight and tenacity made possible.

And though the struggle for racial equality did not begin with the founding of the NAACP, few organizations have done as much to advance the cause of equality as this one. Few have had as direct, or as lasting, an impact on the course of our nation’s history or on the evolution of our laws.

We are all the beneficiaries of the men and women who founded the NAACP, and of those who have carried on its work over the last century. Their legacy is in our laws and in the lives of millions of Americans who enjoy opportunities today that did not exist a century ago.

Their legacy lives wherever children have the chance to learn together, regardless of their race.

Their legacy lives whenever we make our laws more fair, and whenever we fairly enforce them.

Their legacy lives in the opportunity to seek – and to win – the highest office in the land.

This opportunity has a special resonance this year. For who would have dared to dream in 1908, while the fires of Springfield still smoldered, that one hundred years later an African-American would come to that city to declare his candidacy for President the United States? Or that earlier this year, that candidate would stand on the steps of our nation’s Capital – connected by a sea of humanity to the memorial where Lincoln keeps a watchful eye on the Union he saved – to take the Oath of Office?

In the century since Springfield, our nation has achieved unprecedented changes – in its laws and in the hearts of its people. Every American should take justifiable pride in that fact. But we must resist the temptation to conclude that our nation has fulfilled its promise of full equality based on one moment or on one election. We know better than that. The effort to harmonize our laws with our best ideals is not yet done. We still have work to do. And some of that work will be done by the Justice Department that I am so honored to lead.

We must keep working to bring those who commit bias-motivated crimes to justice. Last month I testified before the Senate in support of "The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009." And, in fact, more than 11 years ago, when I was Deputy Attorney General, I testified before Congress that similar legislation was necessary. Eleven years is too long to wait for the tools necessary to protect all Americans from the most heinous forms of bias-motivated violence. I urge all Americans to stand with the President and with the Department of Justice in support of this important legislation.

Likewise, we must keep working to build a more effective, more efficient, more equitable system of criminal justice. A system of justice that focuses not just on punishing criminals, but also on preventing crime. A system of justice that focuses not just on locking people away, but also on integrating former offenders back into their communities so they can build productive, law-abiding lives. And, a system of justice that applies the same penalties for offenses involving cocaine – regardless of its form.

I have seen first-hand the effect that disparities in drug sentences have had on our communities. In my career as a prosecutor and judge, I saw too often the cost borne by the community when promising, capable young people sacrificed years of their futures for non-violent offenses. Let me be clear: the Department of Justice will never back down from its duty to protect our citizens and our neighborhoods from drugs, or from the violence that all-too-often accompanies the drug trade. But we must discharge this duty in a way that protects our communities as well as the public’s confidence in the justice system.

It is not justice to hand down disparate prison sentences for materially similar crimes. It is not justice to continue our adherence to a sentencing scheme that disproportionately affects some Americans, and some communities, more severely than others. Our goal is simple: to ensure that our sentencing system is tough and predictable, but also fair.

We must also keep working to ensure that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has the tools it needs to defend the hard-won progress of the civil rights era, progress that the NAACP fought so hard to achieve. Four months ago, I traveled to Selma, Ala., to help commemorate the forty-fourth anniversary of Bloody Sunday. I promised then that the Civil Rights Division would live up to its "long, proud history;" that it would "fight discrimination and inequality just as fiercely as the Criminal Division fights crime;" in short, that it would "reflect the spirit of the movement that inspired its creation." This has been one of my highest priorities since my return to the Justice Department and I remain committed to providing the Civil Rights Division with the attention, the resources, and the leadership that its dedicated professionals deserve. Today, I can proudly report that the Civil Rights Division is back and is open for business.

All of these steps are critical. But changing the law can only create a path – it cannot bring us to our final destination. The goal of full equality cannot be mandated by the government or achieved by the courts alone. To reach this goal, all of us must take responsibility for ourselves, for our choices, and for our futures. We must renew our commitment to capitalize on the opportunities provided by so many who sacrificed so much. All of us must find the courage to confront these issues in our own lives.

So as we celebrate the magnificent success of the NAACP’s first century, let us recognize that the next century will be less about changing our laws than about changing ourselves.

Ten years ago, I addressed the NAACP’s convention, and expressed my view that "we must begin to insist again that everyone be held accountable for his or her own actions. ‘Personal responsibility’ must once again become the constant refrain and the guiding principle of our society." A decade later, I believe this to be true now more than ever.

The answers to many of the problems that confront some of our nation’s most vulnerable communities of color can be found within those very communities. We must be prepared to ask ourselves difficult questions and to face tough truths. We must be prepared to do what is necessary to justify our parents’ and grandparents’ investment in the struggle for civil rights. We owe this to the people and to the organization that we honor here today.

And we also owe it to future generations of Americans who will inherit the nation we leave to them. My 11 year-old son is here with me today and as I think about him and his sisters I know that the struggle that we have yet to win must continue to be fought.

Our laws can guarantee that every child has equal access to an education. But access alone cannot make a child pick up a book. That is the responsibility of every parent.

Our laws can guarantee an equal opportunity to vote. But opportunity alone cannot make a person take the time to register and cast a ballot. That is the responsibility of every citizen.

Our laws can ensure the chance to excel and lay the foundation for a safer society. But law alone cannot make people take pride in their communities or in themselves. That is the responsibility of every neighbor, of every family member and of every friend.

As DuBois once said, "There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise." It is up to each of us to seize the opportunities before us and to do our part to make the dream of full equality a reality.

Some here are too young to recall the obstacles of the past. They can barely imagine a world in which people were barred from classrooms, lunch counters and voting booths because of their race. A world in which people could be threatened, beaten or murdered for exercising their fundamental rights.

When future generations assess the nation that they inherit from us, they will surely note that we faced fewer challenges and enjoyed more opportunities than the generations that preceded us. What will we have made of these opportunities? If we muster the courage to take responsibility for ourselves – for our neighbors and our communities – then we will have made our nation’s soaring ideals a reality for all of us. And we will have left behind a legacy that pays fitting tribute to all of the men and women whose sacrifices made this day possible.

We marvel at the differences between our world and the world as it was a century ago. By determined action, let us bless our children and our grandchildren by extending to them, unbowed and unbroken, another century of remarkable progress.

Thank you.