Thank you, Bruce, for that introduction. And thank you for inviting me to be a part of this celebration.
I read where Coretta Scott King wrote of this day celebrating her husband, that “No other day of the year brings so many people from different cultural backgrounds together in such a vibrant spirit of brother and sisterhood…This is not a black holiday; it is a people’s holiday.”
In that spirit, I appreciate that the president of the NAACP would invite the first Hispanic Attorney General to an event celebrating one of the greatest African-American heroes in our nation’s history.
I believe, as I know you do, that civil rights is not a black, brown, or white issue…it is a people’s issue. Just as it was when Martin Luther King owned the podiums and pulpits of the South, the protection of civil rights is everyone’s issue today. My destiny is tied to your destiny. Your freedom is bound to the freedom of every other American, no matter their race. As Dr. King urged, “we cannot walk alone.”
His vision of civil rights was a broad movement encompassing all of God’s children. Today, we are all beneficiaries of King’s efforts, and, thus, we all share a special obligation to help others and to fight discrimination arm-in-arm with our brothers and sisters. As it has always been, the struggle for civil rights is an effort to ensure the promises of the past for every future generation.
You are doing that by cultivating and mentoring the next generation of black leaders – leaders that will go on to achieve great things not only in corporate America but in every field of human endeavor. I encourage you to maintain the spirit of this celebration – the spirit of Dr. King – in your continued efforts year round to identify and support young people and rising stars in the Verizon family…as well as in your communities away from work.
I have committed myself to the same goal. In fact, last week the Department of Justice hosted a conference focused on helping disadvantaged youth in our country. In speaking to this group of everyday heroes, a group much like this one, I reflected on the world of opportunities we are providing to the next generation…and on my responsibilities – and my hopes – for that world as a father, as a citizen, and as the Attorney General.
In each of those roles – as the father to Graham and Gabriel, as a citizen of this great and good nation, and as the Attorney General for all Americans – I believe I have an obligation as a steward of the American dream. I’ve lived that dream, and I must preserve and protect the hopes and opportunities that I have received for future generations.
The mantle of this responsibility has been handed down by generations of parents, citizens, and leaders. It has been passed from the Founding Fathers to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King…and thousands more in between who stood silently on guard during their turn on watch.
Dr. King in particular taught us that stewardship is not static, it is not standing still. We must be bold in tending to this charge. Coretta Scott King said of this celebration of her husband’s legacy, “We commemorate on this holiday the man of action, who put his life on the line for freedom and justice every day.”
So I believe that an active celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. requires an assessment of our stewardship of his dream, one that he so eloquently reminded us is “deeply rooted in the American dream.”
His dream for equal rights and the American dream defined by hope and opportunity intersect in each of our lives…each of our families…each of our efforts to shepherd our fundamental freedoms into the next generation.
We hardly have to be reminded of how far we’ve come since Dr. King’s struggle against injustice. In a recent speech on civil rights, I told the story of my mother – the poor daughter of Mexican immigrants – being denied entry to a restaurant in a small, west-Texas town. In one generation, she went from being forced to the back door by a restaurant owner, to walking in the front door of the White House to visit the President. The story is even more powerful when you consider that she never voted until she was 50 years old because, as she said, it was a different time for people of color in America.
Today things are better, though they are not as perfect as we’d all like them to be. My mother’s experiences, and those of my father and our entire family growing up poor in Houston, are the reasons I care so deeply about civil rights in America today. I care about the African-American family that is denied the right to vote. I care about the 12-year-old Asian girl who is sold into prostitution. I care about the Mexican-American couple who can’t get decent housing. I care about applying the law to everyone equally, so that everyone has an equal opportunity to pursue the American dream.
So it is clear that while we have come a great distance, there are still civil rights priorities that are as important today as they were during Martin Luther King’s lifetime.
Before he dreamed of full freedom and equality, King lived the daily struggle of discrimination and injustice.
He gave voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, and faith to all those who had abandoned their belief in the American ideals of freedom and equality. And where he observed or experienced injustice, he pursued an aggressive course to right the ship of our society.
Dr. King saw injustice at lunch counters in Atlanta. He responded with sit-ins.
Dr. King saw injustice on the bus lines of Montgomery. He responded with a boycott.
Dr. King saw injustice at the polling places of the South. He responded to police violence with persistence and peaceful faith.
Dr. King saw injustice in the poverty, segregation, and discrimination that characterized the lives of blacks four decades ago. He responded with a march on Washington to “dramatize a shameful condition.”
He correctly predicted that the assemblage in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 would go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of the United States. And it was effective. The country is far different today than it was in the 1960s. Black Americans no longer endure the hardships of overt, state-sponsored racism. There are no longer signs that declare “Whites Only.” There are no longer attack dogs at the doors of our polling stations…or riot police on the steps of our universities.
Great progress has emerged from King’s persistence. We’ve made strides toward his dream, in part because of his success in shifting the tides of discrimination from a personal choice to a matter of great legal consequence.
Directly or indirectly, from King’s efforts flowed the Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and others. From his example and memory flows the work of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, for instance, and thousands more charged with ensuring that our deeds match the strong letter of the law and the lofty ideals of King’s words on the Lincoln Memorial.
Martin Luther King had confidence in America. It was a confidence that defied all practical experience. But some have noted that he was at his best when he focused the civil rights movement on the strengths of our society, among them the innate justice of the Constitution and the fundamental decency of the American people. King’s non-violent movement mined these great resources for the gems of change… to our society, to our cherished principles, and to our laws.
Today, Dr. King would take pleasure in these marked changes, many of which he directly helped to procure, but he would remain dissatisfied in the work left undone. There is work left undone in securing the voting rights of all Americans. There is work left undone in protecting the pursuit of fair housing. There is work left undone in our schools and workplaces…in the prison system and healthcare facilities.
Today, King would find that the oppressed and marginalized are such not only because of the color of their skin, but also the language they speak or the nation of their heritage. Sadly, still today, too rarely is the content of one’s character the true measure of their freedom or equality in our great Nation.
He would pursue this injustice with the same zeal and fortitude – and non-violent means – as he did the more obviously repulsive oppression during the days of Jim Crow. This subtler brand of discrimination means that, in pursuit of the rule of law, we must work harder, search longer, dig deeper to ensure that all Americans can cash the check of which Dr. King spoke.
In many areas, we are making progress. In others, it is clear that additional work remains. Not surprisingly, some of King’s eloquent language still rings true in these areas today.
In front of hundreds of thousands of marchers, King declared that “we cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
There is much to be satisfied with today. Last year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. It has been called one of the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted.
Today, the power to vote is one of the greatest opportunities we share as Americans. On Election Day, we all have an equal voice, an equal chance to exert a measure of influence over the events and decisions that shape our lives and our Nation.
In calling for reauthorization of this important legislation, President Bush has affirmed his charge to the Department of Justice: ensure that every qualified person in every community of America has an equal chance to not only vote – but also have that vote count. We’re doing that with one of the most extensive enforcement efforts in the history of the Voting Rights Act, giving all people access to the ballot box and rooting out fraud wherever it is found.
Last year, Congressman John Lewis – who marched for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge – noted the progress we’ve made. In Mississippi, he explained, only 7% of the black population was registered to vote when Dr. King highlighted their plight during his famous speech. Today, ten times that many are registered – 70%. And Mississippi boasts the highest number of black elected officials in any state of the union.
Lewis and others, including President Bush and myself, have called for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, to further solidify the gains we’ve achieved over the past four decades.
But Martin Luther King also maintained that we could “never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of cities.”
The same is true, today, for families weighed down with the burdens of high rents, discriminatory policies, and the barriers of English as a second language. Discrimination in housing is a major concern for the Department of Justice, and our Civil Rights Division is working hard to confront this challenge as we have others in our history. In the coming weeks, the Justice Department will be taking additional steps to ensure that race and ethnicity open doors for people in the search for housing, rather than serve as deadbolts on the dream of safe, affordable, and fair accommodations for their family.
In total, the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department has amassed an impressive record. Last year, for instance, the Division filed more criminal civil rights cases than in any other year in its history. That includes record levels of enforcement to protect young women and girls from human trafficking, to ensure the disabled can fully participate in their communities, and to provide the highest standard of care to institutionalized persons.
During this Administration, one message has been very clear: Discrimination is against the law and will not be tolerated. We have Dr. King’s work to thank, in part, for the former. He inspired acts of civil disobedience that often led to changes in our laws. And we have his legacy to thank for the latter. His courage of conviction has taught generations of Americans to reject racism, and confront hate with brotherly love.
But we cannot ignore that the Department’s busy docket of civil rights cases also means that abuses exist… that we still must heed Martin Luther King’s reminder of the “fierce urgency of Now.” “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children,” King said.
He was right back then…and his words ring true still today. Now is the time to make real the promise of equal rights for all people. Now is the time to even better enforce the laws he helped inspire. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to his dream. Now is the time to place content of character over race, sex, religion, language, ethnicity, and national origin…to embrace our diversity as strength rather than stigma… and to preserve the American dream for this and future generations.
Late in 1956 – long before the sweltering summer of discontent – Martin Luther King spoke to the Institute of Nonviolence and Social Change in Montgomery, Alabama. He told the assembled that “the end is the creation of the Beloved Community.”
So when the end came for Martin Luther King on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, just hours after telling followers that he might not reach the promised land with them, the pursuit of his “Beloved Community” continued.
King’s dream for a color-blind society is just the beginning. The beloved community means more than the absence of bigotry, discrimination, and hatred. The beloved community means the presence of love, and peace, and understanding.
We all must be committed to this ideal in the laws of our nation, in our daily work, and in the fabric of our families – and I ask for your support and partnership as we work toward this goal together. We will reach King’s beloved community when the American dream is available to all our children – regardless of circumstance. And then – as fathers, citizens, and leaders – we can pass along to future generations the hope and opportunity that we inherited from Martin Luther King and others.
Thank you. May God bless you and your families. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.