Thank you for welcoming me to this great state and this beautiful city. I am honored to be with you all today – and to bring greetings from President Obama, from my fellow members of his Cabinet, and from my colleagues in the Department of Justice. I especially want to thank President [Ben] Jealous and Dr. [Lonnie] Randolph – as well as the NAACP’s leadership, membership, and many supporters – for inviting me to stand with, celebrate with, and dream with you today.
For more than 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 with an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s vision of racial and social equality; to revitalize his efforts to expand economic opportunity and promote civil engagement; and to reaffirm our commitment 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.
Here in Columbia today, and in communities all across the country – in our corridors of power and our places of worship, in our schools and homes, on our streets and the steps of our State Houses – the spirit of Dr. King lives on. His memory continues to touch us. His legacy continues to guide us. And his words still have the power to teach us, to comfort us, and to call us to action.
Throughout his life, 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, and for our founding ideals to be realized, 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. Dr. King proved that a single person, willing to act, has the power to improve the world. And I believe that each one of us has a responsibility to try to do exactly that.
Of course, this is not easy work. And history has shown us that our most noble pursuits may be inspired by frustration just as often as by faith. But one of the most important lessons that Dr. King left to us is that it is acceptable to be frustrated. It is fine to be impatient. And, when progress does not come quickly or fully, it is only natural to be dissatisfied. In fact, being frustrated, impatient and dissatisfied is fine – but only if those feelings compel 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, to good jobs, and to the ballot box.
He was dissatisfied when citizens who loved this country – and honorably served in this nation’s military – 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 each of us would be. For myself, I can’t imagine that I would be standing before you today – on this celebration of Dr. King’s 83rd birthday – as our nation’s 82nd Attorney General.
In this role, I have the privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing many of the civil rights laws and reforms that Dr. King fought to ensure. For our nation’s Department of Justice, and for our government and law enforcement partners across the country, this is among our highest priorities. This is evident in the historic progress that’s been made by this Administration – 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.
In particular, today’s Justice Department – and, specifically, our Civil Rights Division and its Voting Section – have taken meaningful steps to ensure integrity, independence, and transparency in our enforcement of the Voting Rights Act – legislation that Dr. King was instrumental in advancing and, in 1965, saw signed into law by President Johnson.
N early half a century ago, Dr. King correctly observed that, although the walls of segregation were crumbling, without equal access to the ballot box, America’s minority citizens would have “dignity without strength.” With this knowledge, he – and so many other courageous men and women – took extraordinary risks – and also made tremendous sacrifices – to ensure that their children, and future generations of American citizens, would have the chance to participate in the work of their government. They realized a truth that we must never take for granted – that the right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of governance, it is the lifeblood of our democracy. And no force has proved more powerful – or more integral to the success of the great American experiment – than efforts to expand the franchise. Let me be very clear: the arc of American history has bent toward the inclusion – not the exclusion – of more of our fellow citizens in the electoral process. We must ensure that this continues.
As President Jealous and others have discussed today – despite our nation’s record of progress, and long tradition of extending voting rights – today, a growing number of citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that Dr. King fought throughout his life to address and overcome. In recent months, in my travels across this country – and here in South Carolina – I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from citizens, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble ideals; and that some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance.
Let me assure you: for today’s Department of Justice, our commitment to strengthening – and to fulfilling – our nation’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice has never been stronger.
Nowhere is this clearer than in current efforts to expand access to, and prevent discrimination in, our election systems. We are dedicated to aggressively enforcing the Voting Rights Act – and to fulfilling our obligations under both Section 5 and Section 2 of this vital law.
Under Section 2, which prohibits racially discriminatory practices that amount to either vote denial or vote dilution, we have opened a record number of new investigations – more than 100 in the last fiscal year. We’ve also had significant success – without litigation – in encouraging voluntary improvements and compliance.
At the same time, Section 5 – which requires preclearance of proposed voting changes in parts or all of sixteen states – continues to be a critical tool in the protection of voting rights. In 2006, it was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan – and near-unanimous – support in Congress, before being signed by President Bush. However, despite the long history of support for Section 5, this keystone of our voting rights laws is now being challenged as unconstitutional by several jurisdictions. Each of these lawsuits claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.
I wish this were the case. But the reality is that – in jurisdictions across the country – both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common. And though nearly five decades have passed since Dr. King shared his vision from the mountaintop – despite all the progress we’ve made, the barriers we’ve broken down, and the divisions we’ve healed – as a nation, we have not yet reached the Promised Land.
That’s why the Justice Department will continue to vigorously defend Section 5 against challenges to its constitutionality. We’re now reviewing a number of redistricting plans in covered jurisdictions. Our reviews have included the proposed plans for the state House, state Senate, and congressional delegation here in South Carolina – and also will include redistricting plans for local election bodies.
We’ll also continue to review other types of changes to our election systems and processes – including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, to early voting procedures, and to photo identification requirements – to ensure that there is no discriminatory purpose or effect. For example, we recently objected – under Section 5 – to a South Carolina act that sought to impose a more restrictive photo identification requirement on voters in this state; and another that sought to change the manner of selecting members of a local school board. In each instance – after a thorough and fair review – we concluded that the state had failed to meet its burden of proving that the voting change would not have a racially discriminatory effect.
We need – and the American people deserve – election systems that are free from discrimination, free from partisan influence, and free from fraud. And we must do everything within our power to make certain that these systems are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country. The Justice Department will continue working to protect the voting rights of U.S. service members and veterans, and to enforce other laws that protect Americans living abroad, citizens with disabilities, and language minorities. But we can’t do it alone.
Protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative. And ensuring that every eligible citizen has the right to vote must become our common cause.
This means that we must support policies aimed at modernizing our voting systems; at ensuring that all eligible citizens have access to complete, accurate, and understandable information about where, when, and how they can cast a ballot; and at preventing and punishing fraudulent voting practices.
Voter fraud, quite simply, is not acceptable – and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department. But as I learned early in my legal career –when I actually investigated and prosecuted voting-fraud cases – making voter registration easier is simply not likely, by itself, to make our elections more susceptible to fraud. Indeed, responsible parties on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon.
In this great nation there must always be room for discussion, for debate, and for improvement – and there will continue to be competing visions about how our government should move forward. That’s what the democratic process is all about – creating space for the thoughtful exchange of ideas, creating opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions, and ultimately letting the people – through the casting of their ballots – chart their course. Our nation has worked for, struggled for, and fought for such a system. And, today, this fight goes on. The progress we hold dear, and the democracy we hold sacred, is in our hands – and our responsibility to carry forward.
So let us seize this moment. Let us keep faith with Dr. King and rise to the challenges of our time. Let us act – with optimism and without delay; in honor of the men and women on whose shoulders we stand, and on behalf of the generations who will follow in our steps. And, in the spirit of Dr. King, let us signal to the world that – in America today – the pursuit of a more perfect union lives on, the march toward the Promised Land goes on, and the belief – not merely that we shall overcome, but that, as a nation, we will come together – continues to push us forward.
May God continue to bless our journey. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.