Thank you, Reverend Anthony, for those kind words – and thank you all for the opportunity to take part in this momentous celebration. It’s a pleasure to join Mayor Bing, along with Detroit’s hardworking Congressional delegation – Senator Levin, Senator Stabenow, Congressman Conyers, and Congressman Clarke – in marking the centennial of the largest – and one of the most accomplished – NAACP branches in the country.
I’d like to thank this branch’s leadership and membership – as well as tonight’s General Chairs and Co-Chairs – for all they’ve done to bring us together tonight. And I’d particularly like to congratulate this year’s award recipients – Rhonda Walker, Nabih Ayad, Rachel Maddow, Maureen Taylor, and Reverend Dr. Julius Hope – on this prestigious, and well-deserved, recognition.
It’s a privilege to be back in the Motor City – and to bring greetings from President Obama. This is an historic evening – an occasion to take pride in the legacy of achievement that has come to define and distinguish the work of the NAACP and, in particular, of its Detroit Branch. But it’s also an important opportunity to take stock of what’s left to do – and to consider the challenges that lie before us. So, as we come together to celebrate the power of individual voices, and the collective action – and nationwide progress – that a single person can help to inspire – let us also reflect on the responsibilities that each one of us shares – responsibilities to ourselves and each other, to our children, and to our predecessors – whose examples of courage – and commitment to collaboration – continue to show us the way forward.
Just over a century ago – at a time when segregation was the law of the land, and too many communities across our nation were gripped by fear and shattered by violence – a group of visionaries came together – driven by concern and frustration – to put forward a dream of hope for their own communities – and for all of their fellow citizens.
Since then, the NAACP has stood on the front lines of our nation’s fight to ensure security, opportunity, and justice – and equal treatment. In a direct sense, this organization enabled many of the sweeping, transformative changes that shifted the course of the twentieth century – and paved the way for remarkable, once-unimaginable progress. And since 1912 – when the Detroit Branch received its charter – there’s no question that this community has been at the center of these historic efforts.
When housing discrimination rocked the state of Michigan, it was the NAACP that stepped up and provided the funding to take this struggle to the court system – winning a major legal victory in 1925.
When the indignities of the unjust “separate but equal” doctrine could be tolerated no longer, it was the NAACP that shepherded a legal challenge all the way to the Supreme Court – and in 1954 helped secure the landmark Brown ruling. That same year, the Detroit Branch obtained a decision in federal court that ended segregation in this city’s public housing system.
When pioneers like W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, James Weldon Johnson, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers – and a young Montgomery preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. – raised their voices, and even risked their lives, in pursuit of a more perfect union, each of them found a position of leadership – and a community of committed partners – in the NAACP.
And when a bright young woman named Vivian Malone – who would later become my sister-in-law – set her sights on a quality college education, but was barred from enrolling in her state’s university because of her race, she came to the NAACP for advice as she mounted a legal challenge. And in 1963 – with the support of the courts; with the help of my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy; and with the eyes of the nation upon her – she stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama.
Long before I married her sister, Vivian became that University’s first African-American graduate. For the rest of her life, she fought for equal opportunity as a member of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and as an activist with the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP. Although she passed away several years ago – much too soon – her courage has inspired me since I was a young man, seeing the iconic news images of that infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” for the very first time. And her example continues to guide me even today.
In fact, stories like Vivian’s – and landmark achievements like the ones this Branch has helped to bring about – were what drove me, as an aspiring attorney, to spend my first summer in law school working for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund – where I had the chance to be part of a tradition of service that was established by legendary attorneys like Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, and later strengthened by brilliant, dedicated leaders like my good friend John Payton. Not long after, I launched my career in public service at the Department of Justice.
Today, I am humbled to be a direct beneficiary of the progress that the NAACP has made possible over the years. And I’m honored to serve in the Administration of President Barack Obama, another direct beneficiary of this work.
Yet, despite the significant, once-unimaginable advances that have marked the century since this group convened its first meetings – not far from where we gather tonight, at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church – 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.
On the contrary – this work remains as important – and as urgent – as ever before.
Of course, you already know this. You know that, in far too many American cities, there are neighborhoods where too many kids go to prison and too few go to college; where the doors to education and opportunity seem to be firmly closed; and where, for many young people, funerals are more common than weddings. There are school districts where suspensions are disproportionately likely to be imposed on black students, Hispanic students, poor students, and students with special needs – increasing the chances that they’ll be involved with the juvenile justice system.
Fortunately, on each of these fronts, the Detroit NAACP has responded not with despair, but with resolve. You are carrying on – and continuing to strengthen – the tradition of advocacy and empowerment that has become your hallmark. You’re calling forth – and bringing out – the very best in this city’s residents. You’re fighting to safeguard civil rights, to ensure embattled voting rights, and to expand learning and employment opportunities in every community. And you’re working – on the streets as well as in the courts – 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.
This is an issue that has – rightly – garnered significant national attention in recent months – as our nation has struggled to make sense of the tragic shooting death of a Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin. As this case moves through the legal system, Justice Department officials will continue to communicate closely with state and local authorities to ensure that community concerns are heard, tensions are alleviated, and – as with every investigation at every level – appropriate actions are guided by the facts and the law.
But – as we all know – the reality is that certain aspects of this case are far from unique. And incidents of violence involving young people are anything but rare.
Nationwide, homicide is the leading cause of death for black men between the ages of 15 and 24. More than 60 percent of all young people are exposed to violence at some point in their lives, either as victims or as witnesses. And one report even showed that – here in Detroit – an average of two young black men are killed every week – a murder rate nearly seven times higher than the population at large.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this is shocking. It is unacceptable. And it’s why the leadership of organizations like the NAACP – and the engagement of activists throughout Detroit and across the country – remains as vital as ever.
It’s also why, under the Obama Administration, the Justice Department has made an unprecedented commitment to protecting the safety – and potential – of our children. For the first time in history, we are directing significant resources for the express purpose of addressing childhood exposure to violence, raising awareness of its ramifications, and advancing scientific inquiry on its causes and characteristics. Through our landmark Defending Childhood Initiative, which I launched in 2010 – and our National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, which is implementing an action plan right here in Detroit – we’re developing strategies for reducing violence and countering its negative impact. And in six cities – including this one – an innovative pilot initiative known as “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” is allowing local leaders to leverage federal, state, local, business, and non-profit partnerships in order to enhance cooperation on a host of community-based efforts – including violence prevention.
I believe there’s good reason for optimism about where this work will lead us – and the progress that this type of collaboration has made possible. And I’m pleased to report that a similar spirit of partnership – and a robust, Department-wide commitment to protecting the most vulnerable among us, confronting longstanding divisions, and overcoming persistent disparities – has infused the Administration’s endeavors on a range of critical areas.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the determined efforts of our Civil Rights Division. As Attorney General, I have the great privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing many of the laws and reforms that the NAACP and other groups have fought, over the past century, to enact. For the Department and our allies across the country, this work is among our highest priorities. And I’m proud to say that our approach has never been more effective.
Over the past three years, the Department’s 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. We’ve moved aggressively to combat continuing racial segregation in schools – and to eliminate discriminatory practices in our housing and lending markets. We’ve taken decisive action to vigorously enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act – our nation’s most important civil rights statute – by challenging attempts to disenfranchise many of our fellow citizens. And we’ve reinvigorated sweeping efforts 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.
Across the Administration, we’re working in a range of other innovative ways to achieve fairness and expand opportunity – from successfully advocating for the reduction 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 our determination to build on these efforts has, quite simply, never been stronger.
Of course, I cannot pretend that the road ahead will be an easy one. And I recognize – and have seen firsthand – that doing what’s right may not always be the same as doing what’s popular.
But I firmly believe that each of us has the power – and the responsibility – to take up the unfinished struggle for equal opportunity and justice. To rise to this moment of possibility – and seize our chance to protect and empower those who need our help most.
After all – if, as they say, what’s past is prologue – tonight’s celebration of your first 100 years should inspire a great deal of confidence about where the NAACP’s Detroit Branch will lead us over the next 100.
And, as we look toward the future we seek – and, together, must build – know that my colleagues and I at every level of the Justice Department are privileged to count you as partners. Know that I am hopeful about all that we can – and will – achieve together. And finally, know that I am honored to stand with you – tonight and always – in living out the spirit that inspired the creation of the NAACP – and that must always drive our pursuit of a more inclusive, more just, and more perfect union. The creation of that better America is within our grasp. If we commit ourselves, if we work together, if we remember the sacrifices of those who envisioned a better world – not for them, but for us – there is nothing we cannot accomplish. So let us leave tonight secure in the knowledge that our destiny – our nation's destiny – will be determined primarily by the resolve and the vigor that we bring to this endeavor. I look forward to working with all of you.