Department of Justice Seal

Attorney General Transcript

Martin Luther King Commemoration
The Great Hall
January 17, 2002


      ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Please -- thank you. Thank you very much. Please be seated. Thank you. It's a delight to be here.

      I want to thank you for the opportunity to express publicly my appreciation for Martin Luther King, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. I did mention to Larry, the deputy, as we were sitting there this morning, how important it is to note that he not only was a leader, but that frankly he was a religious leader. And for us to fail to mention that, I think, is for us to fail to recognize one of the very important components of a culture that can lead us to our highest and best. I think each of us -- and I
thank you for mentioning it -- each of us operates at a higher level, we reach the plain at which God expects us to operate, when we respond to the kind of challenge that Dr. Martin Luther King placed before all of us.

      And to the chairman of the deacon board, Thomas Wright (sp), I want to thank you again for your prayer and for mentioning the Proverb that "where there is no vision, the people perish." I have a minister friend who reminds me all the time that it's not only true that where there is no vision, the people perish; it's true that where there are no people, the vision perishes.

And when Dr. Martin Luther King presented the vision, there were people who came with him to make sure that the vision did not perish. And this happy collision of vision and people is the condition in which things change.

      And today we come to reacquaint ourselves as people with the vision, and in a sense, Dr. Martin Luther King, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, stands in the shoes of all those in our history who have called us to this level of greatness. He would have been the first to recognize that he wasn't the first individual to make a commitment to the advancement of equality and the dignity of humanity and individuals.

      And so today we remember others, but we remember them in the context of the birthday of an individual who called us to greatness.

      And I particularly want to commend those who organized the program today for placing on the back of the program the six principles of nonviolence. These remind me of the letter of Dr. King from the Birmingham Jail, when he -- he really touched, I think, us at our most innermost beings. That we have to remember, in the midst of our struggles, that we have a certain character that we exhibit, and that we achieve most profoundly and most successfully our objectives when we refuse to deny that character. That strength of character is something that we celebrate today. That strength of character is part of what makes us so eager to thank publicly Dr. Martin Luther King as a nation, to honor the birthday, the life and the dream of this great American.

      It is important for us in this hall of justice to recognize and to thank Dr. Martin Luther King. We stand in awe of our predecessors in this department. We strive to build upon the heritage of men and women who were the trust-busters. They were the protectors of our nation's security from fascists and communists. They were the prosecutors of Mafia bosses and corrupt political machines. And they were crusaders for every American's equality, civil liberty, civil rights and human dignity.

We stand in awe of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, who led a struggle for the rights and dignity of fellow citizens, deeply rooted in the cause of justice for all Americans.

      In the end, Dr. King wrote early in his career, the struggle for civil rights -- and I'm quoting now -- "is not a struggle between people at all, but a tension between justice and injustice." Dr. King was not afraid to evoke this tension, and he devoted his life to rallying the consciences of Americans to places where justice was absent.

      I'll quote Dr. King again. "I am here in Birmingham because injustice is here," he wrote in his extraordinary letter to a group of white clergymen from a Birmingham City Jail cell in 1963. Quote: And "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

      Monday will mark the 73rd anniversary of Martin Luther King's birth and the 16th time that Americans have celebrated the national day honoring him. The work that he began in Montgomery, Selma and Washington is not finished, but his message of freedom, tolerance, hope continues to echo in the cause of justice.

      It's a testimony to Dr. King's legacy that almost immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, voices were raised cautioning Americans not to turn their anger against Arab-Americans and people of the Muslim faith. Americans overwhelmingly heeded this message. In many cases, individuals reached out to Muslims and to others to reassure them that they were still welcome and valued members of our communities. The vast majority of Americans seemed to understand that the nation had suffered a great loss. To seek vengeance through ethnically or religiously motivated violence, most Americans understood, would only compound the loss.

      Tragically, however, some Americans chose ignore Dr. King's legacy. Since September the 11th, the Department of Justice has investigated approximately 300 incidents, including violence and threats against those perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin. Misguided individuals have made bomb threats. They've attacked those they perceive to American -- Arab-Americans or Muslim-Americans, and they've threatened mosques and businesses.

      Dr. King challenged Americans to live out the true meaning of our values, and today our values are embodied in laws that protect the civil rights of all Americans. Even in a time of great national tragedy, to strike out in violence on the base of someone -- basis of someone's race, religion or national origin is not merely a violation of our values; it's against the law. Working together, the Department of Justice, state and local officials are prosecuting over 60 cases of civil rights violations that stem from the September 11th tragedy. In these cases, as in all civil rights cases, we take each complaint seriously. We thoroughly investigate every incident, and we prosecute violators to the fullest extent of the law.

      Martin Luther King also challenged us to live out the true meaning of our values by envisioning a day where citizens of this great nation are judged not by the color of their skin, but, as has been already noted, by the content of our character. It's my great honor to be the attorney general of the United States at a time when Dr. King's dream is closer to reality than ever before.

      Never before in history has there been a more diverse and a more qualified leadership team here at the Department of Justice. Under Larry Thompson's indispensable leadership, we've not been satisfied with a team that merely looks like America; we have built a team that reflects the strength of America.

      I'm honored to serve with this team, and with you, and I look forward to the day when the length and breadth of the Justice Department, from line attorneys to investigators to staff assistants, reflects the same diversity and professional excellence as the leadership team.

      In his letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King affirmed -- and I quote -- "the goal of America is freedom" and that this, quote, "sacred heritage of our nation is embodied in the echoing demands of all people for justice."

      I'm personally privileged and we are all privileged to follow in the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's footsteps in defending freedom and ensuring justice. There is no higher calling in government than ensuring that the law applies fairly and equally to all Americans.

      Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King's birth, but tomorrow and in the days and weeks and months to follow, let us strive to honor the cause of equal justice for which he gave his life. He gave his life to make this dream of freedom a reality for every human being.

      Thank you for including me in this celebration and giving me this opportunity to thank Dr. Martin Luther King and others like him, whom we join with because we know that when we realize that dream, we build America.

      God bless you. God bless the United States of America.