Thank you, Jocelyn [Frye]. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak with you, to pray with you, and to join you in this very special celebration. Thank you for making me feel like part of the Shiloh family.
Today, in communities across America – and, especially, in houses of worship like this one – the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lives on. His memory continues to touch us. His legacy continues to guide us. And his words still have the power to teach and to comfort us.
Dr. King’s legacy binds us. And this morning, as we come together to honor his life, we are also bound by a common grief.
One week ago, a senseless rampage in Tucson, Arizona, reminded each of us that, more than 40 years after Dr. King’s own tragic and untimely death, our long struggle to end suffering, to eradicate violence, and to promote peace goes on.
In times like these – times of heartbreak and inexplicable loss – the power of Dr. King’s example and the importance of his contributions are brought into stark focus. So, as we continue to mourn those we have lost, as we pray for those injured, let us also recommit ourselves to carrying on – and carrying forward – Dr. King’s work.
For a quarter of a century now, Americans have come together on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to do just that. Each year, we are provided an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s vision of racial and social equality; to his efforts to expand economic opportunity; and to the values that were at the heart of his sermons, the root of his actions, the core of his character, and the center of his life: tolerance; non-violence; compassion; love; and – above all – justice.
Today’s world is very different from the one that shaped and defined Dr. King’s life. Because of Dr. King – because of those who shared his dream and joined in his work – it is a better place.
We have not yet reached where we want, and need, to be. Far from it. But in the years since Dr. King led a march that helped to transform his era and expand today’s possibilities – great progress has been made.
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 on our national mall – within sight of monuments to our nation’s first President and its Great Emancipator.
Dr. King left this world too soon. But each day we are reminded of the many gifts he left behind: words of wisdom to heed; an example to follow; footprints to guide our own steps; and a mantle of responsibility that, now, falls on our shoulders.
Dr. King spoke often of the “fierce urgency of now.” When he saw injustice in the world, he felt a need to act – and to do so immediately, purposefully, and collaboratively.
When he looked upon his nation, he saw – not only great challenges, but also extraordinary opportunities. He saw infinite possibilities. 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, 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 alone.
Each of us has the power to improve the world around us. And each of us, I believe, has the responsibility to do so.
This is not easy work. And we know that 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. It is fine to be impatient. And, when progress does not come quickly or fully, it is fine to be dissatisfied. In fact, being dissatisfied is important if it compels us to take action.
Dr. King’s strength was rooted in dissatisfaction. It was his hunger for justice, his thirst for peace, and his empathy for others that helped to motivate his life-long struggle to ensure equal rights, equal justice, and equal opportunity.
Dr. King was dissatisfied when anyone – anywhere – faced discrimination and oppression. He was dissatisfied when people of color were denied access to lunch counters, to educational opportunities, and to good jobs.
He was dissatisfied when citizens who loved this country – and honorably served this nation – 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? Just think about where we would be. For myself, I can’t imagine that I would be standing before you today – on what would be Dr. King’s 82nd birthday – as our nation’s 82nd Attorney General.
When I consider the opportunities that I have had, I feel blessed beyond measure. I feel proud of our nation. And I feel grateful for the family members, friends, and colleagues whose support I have relied on and continue to cherish. But – like Dr. King – I am also dissatisfied.
I am dissatisfied that – here in our nation’s capital – there are neighborhoods where young people are more likely to go to prison than to college; and where kids who have not yet reached their teenage years – already – have sworn allegiance to a life of violence and crime.
I am dissatisfied that, in Washington today, more than 2,500 young people are active gang members; and that the majority this city’s African-American households do not include a father.
I am dissatisfied that more than 1.5 million American children have a parent behind bars; and that the majority of America’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 decades, 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. Occasions like this – and rooms filled with dedicated, determined partners – make me optimistic about the road ahead.
The year before he died, when his long labors had begun to bear fruit – and when the changes that he had worked toward were, finally, taking hold – Dr. King famously asked: “Where Do We Go From Here?”
Today, Dr. King’s question is ours to consider.
It may not be answered quickly or easily. But it can – and must be – answered by coming together, by sharing our concerns and our dreams, by being clear about what is working and where we need to improve.
Yes, there are problems to be solved. But there are encouraging signs all around us. I am proud, in particular, of the work that’s being done in today’s Justice Department – to safeguard our nation’s security, to improve public safety, to protect civil rights, and to ensure access to justice and to opportunity. But I know that tomorrow’s success – and our ability to meet our goals and responsibilities – will depend on partners like you.
Throughout the 19th century, the 20th century – and now into the 21st – Shiloh’s leaders and congregants have found ways to reach out to those in need and to lift up those in pain. You have never turned a blind eye to suffering. You have never shied away from challenge. And you have always worked toward solutions.
You have brought law enforcement officers and community residents together. You have helped to sow peace in some of this city’s most dangerous and divided neighborhoods. You have advocated – not just for law and order in the District’s communities, but for greater opportunities and more support for local young people. And you have ensured that Shiloh Baptist Church continues to be a strong voice, and an effective ally, in advancing the cause of justice.
Thank you for your commitment to this work – and for your contributions in determining where we will go from here and how, at long last, we will realize Dr. King’s vision.
May God continue to bless our efforts. May God continue to bless this city. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.