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Civil Rights

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon delivers a speech at the United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, ND, on Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Day.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon delivers a speech at the United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, ND, on Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Day.

United States Attorney Tim Purdon was invited to deliver a speech at the United Tribes Technical College as part of their Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity day Program on January 17, 2011. Purdon spoke regarding the issue of Native Americans and civil rights.

Good morning everyone. I want to thank Dr. Gipp for allowing me to speak and I want to thank my daughter who’s here today. I’m thankful that the children are going to stay to hear a little bit about the Department of Justice and the Civil Rights movement.

Let me tell you a little bit about who I am. To become the U. S. Attorney for North Dakota, the President of the United States has to nominate you. On February 4 of last year, a little less than a year ago, the President decided, for whatever reason, that it would be a good idea if I would be the United States Attorney for North Dakota. I spent several months waiting for the United States Senate to confirm me and I was confirmed in August and sworn in as the eighteenth U. S. Attorney for North Dakota at the end of August in 2010.

It’s a very difficult thing to become U. S. Attorney. I started planning to become U. S. Attorney about 10 years ago. The reason was because of experiences I had as a young lawyer in tribal communities in North Dakota.

When I first graduated from law school I came to Bismarck and worked for Judge Bruce Van Sickle in the Federal Court and spent some time with court staff on the Standing Rock Reservation. I’ll never forget my first visit to Cannonball, North Dakota and what a shock it was for me. I grew up in a community very, very different from a tribal community. And for me to go to Cannonball in 1994 and see that community, and say to myself, ‘I don’t understand how in the United States of America there can be a community of such isolation and poverty and hopelessness.’ It’s something I’ve never forgotten. Shortly thereafter, as I represented many Native Americans from all the reservations in North Dakota in my private practice, I decided I wanted to be U. S. Attorney to see if I could help affect some change in tribal communities.

Since August I have visited all the reservations in North Dakota; met with tribal council members, tribal chairs, tribal law enforcement, social services, and tribal courts. I’m just beginning my process of trying to reach out to tribal communities and help affect positive change. And I want to do that in two ways. The first is, as U. S. Attorney we prosecute violent crimes on the reservations. I do not believe that Native American people can overcome decades and decades of isolation and poverty imposed upon them by the reservation system until, first and foremost, they feel safe in their homes and communities. So, as the chief federal law enforcement officer for North Dakota, my goal is to improve public safety in Indian Country. The second goal is to have a small part in the Department of Justice’s long history in Civil Rights. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today.

Martin Luther King Day is an excellent day to celebrate the life of Dr. King, but also I think it’s broader than that:  to celebrate the Civil Rights movement. I see the historical Civil Rights movement of African-Americans in the South in three periods that can be summarized by one person. The first period was Martin Luther King Jr. and his program of non-violence and non-violent protest. That’s chapter one. I see chapter two as when the Justice Department, the organization I work for, picked up the mantle and made sure the law was followed. And the symbol for that was Robert F. Kennedy, who was attorney general while his brother John Kennedy was President. And then the third act was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And the symbol there is Lyndon Baines Johnson. President Johnson helped get the Civil Rights Act passed.

But, I want to focus on Robert Kennedy. This Friday (January 21, 2011) marks the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s swearing in as attorney general. John Kennedy was elected in 1960 to be President; several days thereafter his brother, Robert Kennedy, was sworn in as Attorney General of the United States. I see that as a tremendous milestone to look back on Robert Kennedy’s contribution to the Civil Rights movement.

Shortly after Kennedy was sworn in as attorney general, he immediately said – he didn’t wait for it to become politically popular and of course it was never going to be politically popular in the South – that the Civil Rights Movement would be a priority of his. In a speech in early 1961 he said:  “We will not stand by or be aloof, we will move. I happen to believe that Brown vs. the Board of Education was rightly decided but my belief does not matter. Some of you may believe the decision is wrong. That does not matter. It is now the law.” As the attorney general, Robert Kennedy set about seeing that the law was followed. And I want to talk about one incident that shows how that worked.

In September of 1962 the Federal Courts in Mississippi had ordered the integration of the University of Mississippi, called Old Miss, in Oxford, Mississippi. There was a young black man named James Meredith who had been admitted to Old Miss to integrate that school. Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, said that the court has ruled, this young man has the right to attend this college and we are going to assure that he gets admitted and is able to take classes. There were riots at Old Miss to deny James Meredith access to the community. The riots were of such degree that Robert Kennedy and his brother John Kennedy had to send U. S. Marshals to protect James Meredith, and eventually had to send U. S. Troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to Old Miss, to assure the integration of that university. The riots were of such intensity that 160 soldiers were injured; 28 U. S. Marshals were shot by rioters, in this riot that lasted many days, and, in fact, two people were killed.

Can you imagine that 28 U. S. Marshals were shot because a black man wanted to go to college in Mississippi? This was less than 50 years ago. You had an African American young man who wants to better himself and he’s met with this level of violence.

In the end the law prevailed and James Meredith was admitted to Old Miss and Attorney General Robert Kennedy saw that the law prevailed and not the forces of bigotry, hatred and violence. They prevailed because Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, insured that the law was followed.

I would hope that Robert Kennedy holds a special place for Native Americans. When he was attorney general, the cause of Native American civil rights was something he cared deeply about as well.

On September 13, 1963 Attorney General Robert Kennedy traveled to Bismarck to address the National Congress of American Indians at their (20th) annual convention. As part of his remarks that day he noted that the Native American had been “the victim of racial discrimination in his own land.” And he noted the statistics at the time:  the infant mortality rate for Native Americans was two times that of whites, and that the life expectancy of Native Americans was 20 years less than whites.

This is 47 years ago. Forty-seven long years ago the Attorney General of the United States came to Bismarck and addressed these problems. You would think that when someone at that level of the Federal government shows up and says ‘this is a problem’ that, at some point, those problems would be dealt with and those problems would be fixed.

Forty-seven years later, the facts are that in Indian Country right now infant mortality is still 33 percent higher than it is for whites. In tribal communities a Native American is 229 percent more likely to die as a victim of a car accident than a white person. The murder rate in tribal communities is 61 percent higher than the rest of the country. Suicide rate is 62 percent higher. These statistics haven’t changed in 50 years. These problems have not been solved. So, the struggle for Native American civil rights is far from over.

I see Robert Kennedy as my guidepost as I think about what I can do, as an employee of the Department of Justice, to help further the cause of Native American civil rights.

As I said before, I do not believe that Native American people can overcome the decades-long effect of isolation and poverty until they feel safe and secure in their communities and their homes. Because of that, as a sense of why I wanted this job as United States Attorney and to motivate me, I have in my office in Fargo a framed photograph taken, I believe, on September 13, 1963 in Bismarck, North Dakota, of the Attorney General of the United States Robert Kennedy. And he’s being presented with a full eagle headdress, that’s being placed on his head by a member of the Standing Rock Tribe. He’s becoming an honorary member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Every time I look at that photograph it reminds me of the responsibility that the Department of Justice and the United States Attorney’s office have, not just to the enforcement of our criminal laws, but also to the enforcement of our civil rights laws. I look to that photograph often as I begin this journey reaching out to tribal communities.

What the photograph means to me is that I, the United States Attorney’s office, and the Department of Justice stand ready to do what Robert Kennedy would have wanted:  enforce the laws in the United States of America.

That means, first and foremost, the prosecution of violent crimes in tribal communities to try and ensure that the reservations become a place where people can feel safe and secure in their homes. But secondly, and just as important, to enforce our civil rights laws so that Native Americans, like James Meredith at Old Miss, do not stand alone against the forces of bigotry, hatred and ignorance. But instead, stand with the Justice Department to see that their civil rights are protected.

Dr. Gipp thank you for inviting me; thank you all for listening. I look forward to working with tribal communities in trying to make a difference. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Timothy Q. Purdon, United States Attorney, District of North Dakota

 

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