Good morning. I am honored to bring greetings from President Obama, from my fellow members of his Cabinet, and from my colleagues in the Department of Justice. I am also grateful for the opportunity to join so many extraordinary leaders and friends in celebrating the life and work of Ebenezer’s former pastor – and our nation’s greatest “drum major for justice” – the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today, we also celebrate the contributions of his wonderful wife – a woman who often noted that she married, not only a man but also a movement, and was a force for change in her own right – Coretta Scott King.
Throughout his life and – most famously – on the eve of his death, as he delivered the legendary “Mountaintop” speech that would be his final sermon, Reverend King asked himself when – if given the choice of any era in history – he would choose to be alive.
This question began with a journey through the ages. At each stop – whether Mount Olympus or ancient Rome, Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation or Roosevelt’s call to fear only fear itself – Dr. King asked himself what era he would choose to be part of. His own, he decided, explaining that happiness comes from embracing the blessings and burdens of fate and the opportunities that accompany living in times of unprecedented challenge. “I know,” he said, “that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Today, once again, it is dark enough.
Last week, a senseless rampage in Tucson, Arizona, reminded us that, more than 40 years after Dr. King’s own tragic death, our long struggle to end suffering and to eradicate violence goes on. But, today, once more, we can see the stars.
We see them in the courage of a husband who died shielding his wife from a spray of bullets; in the kindness of strangers who raced to the aid of those in need; and in the strength of a young, energetic Congresswoman whose fight for her own life has inspired each of ours.
As we continue to mourn those recently lost, and to pray for those now in need of healing and comfort, let us also recommit ourselves to carrying on Dr. King’s work and to honoring the values that were at the center of his life: tolerance; non-violence; compassion; love; and – above all – justice.
I wish that Dr. King could be here with us to see the America that he helped to create. I wish that Dr. King could see the good will and great works that he still inspires. I wish that Dr. King could see that this place of worship continues to be a place of learning, of healing, and of hope; and that the nation he fought to improve soon will honor his memory by consecrating a memorial in Washington, D.C., on our national mall – within sight of monuments to our nation’s first President and its Great Emancipator.
Today, we must look upon our country as Dr. King did. Half a century ago, he saw – not only great challenges, but also extraordinary opportunities. And he saw – clearly – that for every individual to be free, our entire society had to be transformed.
Despite the odds against him, he was undeterred. Despite the obstacles before him, he kept his faith. And despite those who tried to stand in his way, in and out of governments, he proved that – here in America – large-scale, sweeping, righteous change is not impossible. It is not too audacious. It is not too ambitious. And it is not the province of God and prayer alone.
Each of us has the power to improve the world around us. Each of us also has the responsibility, the duty, to do so. Each of us must act.
Dr. King’s example provides proof that, in the work of promoting peace and ensuring justice, one person can make a difference. Individual actions count. And those who are willing to march toward progress, to stand up for a principle, or, simply, to take a seat – in a courthouse or a classroom, at a lunch counter or the front of a bus – can help to change the world.
Of course, this is not easy work. And it may be inspired by frustration just as often as faith. But one of the most important lessons that Dr. King left to us is that it is fine to be frustrated, to be impatient, and to be dissatisfied – if it compels us to take action.
Dr. King was dissatisfied when anyone – anywhere – faced discrimination and oppression. He was dissatisfied when people of color were denied access to public spaces, to educational opportunities, and to good jobs.
He was dissatisfied when citizens who loved their country – including those who honorably served in uniform – were not allowed to vote or were forcibly discouraged from taking part in elections. And he was dissatisfied when – in pursuit of his dream of a just and inclusive America – he was told to “wait,” to “cool off,” or to “back down.”
What if he had listened? What if he had given into doubt and cynicism? What if he had given up? What if he had been patient? Just think about where we would be. Our nation would not have accomplished the progress that has brought America closer to its founding principles – and made our country more true to our founding documents. For myself, I can’t imagine that I would be standing before you today – on this celebration of Dr. King’s 82nd birthday – as our nation’s 82nd Attorney General.
When I consider the opportunities that I have had, and that my parents did not, I feel blessed beyond measure. And I feel proud of our nation. But – like Dr. King – I am also dissatisfied.
I am dissatisfied that – here in Atlanta – there are neighborhoods where young people are more likely to go to prison than to college; and that, in America today, more than one million young people are active gang members.
I am dissatisfied that more than 1.5 million American children have a parent behind bars; and that the majority of our nation’s kids – more than 60 percent of them – have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence.
I am dissatisfied that, even though crime rates have been on a steady decline for the last decade, gun-related deaths have increased each year since 2002. And I am dissatisfied that, over the last 12 months, the number of police officers killed by gun violence has surged by more than 40 percent.
So, yes, like Dr. King – and like many of you – I am dissatisfied. But I am also hopeful. I believe that we, as a people, have the ability to focus on matters that are truly consequential – and to move beyond trivial issues that only serve to divide us. And I am certain that America’s continued progress will depend on our ability to come together – with open hearts and outstretched hands – and to keep faith in the ideals that guided Dr. King’s work and that have made our nation great.
This capacity is within us. Dr. King recognized this. And our history has shown us that, in times of maximum peril, the American people find ways to come together. It is time. We must do so again.
May God continue to bless our efforts. May God continue to bless the memory of one of his great servants. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.