As prepared for delivery
Thank you, Tom [Perez], for your kind words – and for your outstanding leadership of the Civil Rights Division. I also want to thank Deputy Attorney General [James] Cole, and Associate Attorney General [Tom] Perrelli and their teams for the work they’ve done to bring us all together today. And I’m especially grateful to Richard Toscano and his colleagues in the Justice Management Division – who organized this program – for putting me before our keynote speaker. Trust me, you do not want to follow John Lewis. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.
Congressman, thank you for being with us this morning – and for helping to make this celebration so special. As we reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is a privilege to be joined by a leader who not only worked closely with Dr. King, but has done so much to build upon the contributions that defined and distinguished his service to this nation.
Each January, as this country commemorates Dr. King’s birthday, we have an important opportunity to rededicate ourselves to his work – and to his dream of equal opportunity and equal justice.
On the unforgettable day that Dr. King shared this Dream with us – and led hundreds of thousands of Americans in a march on Washington – he was joined by John Lewis, who – though just 23-years old – had already proven to be an effective, tireless and fearless champion for civil rights. During that famous march, Congressman Lewis was among the speakers Dr. King called on to address the crowd. In the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, he offered, not just a challenge, but an enduring creed – declaring that, “Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all.”
Those words were true in 1963. And they remain true today.
Here in our nation’s Justice Department, we continue to keep these words before us. And this idea – that justice is the right of all – continues to guide our work.
Today, we have the privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing the civil rights laws and reforms that Dr. King, Congressman Lewis and so many others fought to ensure. This work is among our highest priorities – a fact that’s evident in the historic progress that’s been made by this Administration and this Justice Department – especially when it comes to expanding access to legal services; to combating hate crimes, community violence and human trafficking; and to strengthening law enforcement efforts so 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.
But despite all that’s been achieved in recent years – and certainly in recent decades – our distinguished guest speaker would be the first to remind us that we have more to do and further to go. And that, today, the struggle for equal justice goes on.
Of course, his example also reminds us of the fact that – in advancing the cause of justice – a single person can make a difference. A single person – with nothing more than the courage to speak out to those in power, and the compassion to reach out to those in need – can help to build a more inclusive, more just and more perfect union.
That is precisely what – for more than half a century – John Lewis has been doing. He has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, to securing civil liberties, and to building what he calls "The Beloved Community" in America. And his commitment to these ideals – and to the highest ethical standards and moral principles – has won him the admiration of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress.
Although today he’s commonly known as "the conscience of Congress," and widely considered to be “one of the most courageous leaders of America’s civil rights movement” – John Lewis came from humble beginnings. He was born the son of sharecroppers – just outside of Troy, Alabama. As a young boy, he felt the effects of segregation firsthand. But he was inspired by the activism he witnessed around him – beginning with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And he was enthralled by the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he listened to on radio broadcasts. At an early age, John Lewis decided to answer Dr. King’s call to take part in the growing Civil Rights Movement – and, as a young man, he emerged as one of its key leaders.
As a college student in Nashville, he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters and participated in the Freedom Rides. He also helped to form – and was named Chairman of – the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And he helped to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in March of 1965, he helped to spearhead one of the most seminal moments of the struggle – leading more than 600 peaceful protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in an effort to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. He – and those who marched with him – were brutally attacked during a confrontation that became known as "Bloody Sunday." John Lewis nearly lost his life that day – but his efforts were instrumental in rallying support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. And, to this day, Congressman Lewis continues to serve on the front lines of efforts to ensure equal access to the ballot box and combat discrimination in our voting systems.
Despite more than 40 arrests, and numerous physical attacks and serious injuries, he has remained a devoted advocate – and model – of nonviolence. And he has spread this philosophy in various leadership posts – at the Field Foundation, the Southern Regional Council, the Voter Education Project, the ACTION federal volunteer agency, the Atlanta City Council, and – of course – as the United States Representative for Georgia's Fifth Congressional District.
During the course of his remarkable career, Congressman Lewis has been honored with more awards and honorary degrees than I could possibly list. And he’s inspired more people and public servants than any of us could count.
I am proud to be included in this group. And I am honored to turn our program over to my good friend – and one of my personal heroes – Congressman John Lewis.