Department of Justice Seal

Remarks* of Deputy Attorney General
for the
Twelfth Annual Scholarship Banquet
Fourteen Black Men of Glynn, Inc
Saturday - January 18, 2003
Glynn County, GA

    Good evening and thank you for the kind introduction.

    It is good to be back in Georgia in general and Glynn County in particular. I am a bona fide homeowner and taxpayer of Glynn County. And I have a complaint: I don't get to spend enough time in Glynn County.

    That introduction reminded me of a story I once heard Alex Haley – the author of "Roots" – tell about a turtle. Two men saw a turtle on the top of a tall, shiny, slick wall. One man asked, "How did he get up there?" The second man said, "I don't know, but he didn't get up there by himself." Your organization certainly understands the profound meaning of this story.

    I am honored to share this evening with you and to celebrate with you the work you do. I know Judge Orion Douglass and know first hand his tremendous commitment to and work for the Glynn County community.

   Sometimes people ask me, "Why would you give up a weekend to go speak to many who are strangers." Well, this is one of the important parts of my job. I have been blessed. If I can share my life experiences and if they can make a difference to one person in this room, then that is what I am supposed to do as a so-called "high government official."

    I am also pleased to see so many young faces in the audience, and I hope that this program tonight and the work of this organization will be some inspiration to you as you progress in life.

    And I really like events like this where we learn from one another as we celebrate much deserved accomplishments. We need these events. Otherwise, we go through life trying to feel our way on our own – like we need to be Superman or Superwoman to survive.

    And that reminds me of another story I heard about Muhammed Ali when he was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. After one of his victorious title fights, the Champ was on an airplane waiting to take off. Ali was annoyed when a flight attendant kept pestering him to put on his seat belt. "Do you know who I am?" He challenged her. "I am the Champion of the World! I am Muhammed Ali! I am Superman! Superman don't need no seatbelt!" The flight attendant looked at him sternly and then quickly shot back, "Superman don't need no airplane either."

    One thing that I learned from growing up in Hannibal, Missouri, a small town on the Mississippi River, is that, as much as we celebrate material success – which can sometimes be a wonderful thing, particularly in the face of hardship – the most important measure of one's success is the difference that you make in the lives of your family, your friends, your community, and your country.

    I try to keep this very simple truth in mind as I go to work everyday as Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice.

    I would like to spend a few brief moments talking to you about my job at the Department of Justice and what I do for you as citizens and taxpayers. You really are my bosses.

   DOJ is vast: over 130,000 employees with offices in every state and many overseas. We not only do all of the litigation work for the federal government in court, but we investigate crimes and violations and imprison the convicted criminals. We have 94 U.S. Attorneys' Offices, several litigating divisions, including Criminal, Civil, Antitrust, Tax, Environmental and Civil Rights. Other agencies are: INS, FBI, DEA, U.S. Marshals – some of which are here with me tonight and serve to protect me – and Bureau of Prisons.

   Staying on top of everything going on at the Justice Department is accurately compared to trying to drink from a fire hose. My morning starts out bright and early with briefings from the CIA and the FBI. They try to give us a full picture of all the emerging threats to our country. And I am frequently called upon to authorize the use of electronic eavesdropping or searches to assist in our counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence efforts.

   My days are taken up with a wide variety of legal and policy issues: from immigration to corporate fraud, from drug interdiction to prison reform, from restructuring the government's response to terrorism to counter-intelligence. I advise the Attorney General and the President.

   I have been a prosecutor three different times in my legal career and have also been a criminal defense lawyer. None of the public service jobs have been particularly well-paying when compared to other legal positions – especially compared to private litigation. The times I have been most satisfied professionally were when I was working at something that was right for me, not the highest paying job.

   But I realized early on that life is, in fact, a one-time deal. You do not get to go around twice – and the times that you remember are those when you did something that made a difference, when you risked much for an even greater reward, and when you reached beyond the everyday to engage yourself in the broader world.

   This is not easy. It is never easy to succeed at something that truly counts. It requires doggedness, even stubbornness. As the inventor Thomas Edison, whose perseverance was legendary, put it: "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

   One thing an organization like the 14 Black Men of Glynn County does is to encourage members of the community to overcome failure through perseverance and preparation. I believe the encouragement to overcome failure was best stated by the late Dr. Benjamin Mays, former President of Morehouse College in Atlanta where I now live and a teacher of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. Mays recognized that:

"The tragedy in life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but is a disgrace to have no stars to reach. Not failure, but low aim, is a sin."

Consider this person's life story. He at:

Age 22 – failed in business;
Age 23 – defeated for State Legislature;
Age 24 – again failed in business;
Age 25 – elected to State Legislature;
Age 26 – his sweetheart died;
Age 27 – suffered nervous breakdown;
Age 29 – defeated for speaker;
Age 31 – defeated for elector;
Age 34 – defeated for Congress;
Age 37 – elected to Congress;
Age 39 – defeated for Congress;
Age 46 – defeated for Senate;
Age 47 – defeated for Vice-President;
Age 49 – defeated for Senate;
Age 51 – Abraham Lincoln elected President of the United States.

   Bitter experience teaches painful lessons, but those lessons, once honestly learned, leave one better able to deal with the challenges ahead. We need to remember this not only as African-Americans, but simply as Americans. Our country is experiencing challenging times too.

   You are living in historic times. You are among the first generation of Americans who face the prospect of mass murder of civilians by a foreign enemy on American soil. At least 10,000 men went through the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. And we will continue to face real and credible threats of terrorist acts in our country for some time to come.

   I urge you to cherish the freedoms and values that we as a nation enjoy and now must fight for. You will be a better person with this understanding of the true nature of our great country.

   Think about why terrorists are doing what they are doing. I know it is difficult to put yourself in such an evil, demented state of mind. It is our very open, democratic and just society that has made us the terrorists' target. It is precisely because the terrorists' ideas cannot compete in the open marketplace of the world that they have turned to violence and horror. They attempt to achieve through mass murder what they will never be able to accomplish in a free exchange of ideas: to subvert our freedoms, freedoms for which millions of Americans – from our Founding Fathers, to our civil rights marchers – have strained and sacrificed.

   They target us simply because we are Americans. They make no distinction between rich and poor, black and white, Jew and Christian. Because they fear our freedom, they must resort to terror.

   In today's environment, I believe an understanding of and appreciation for these basic truths is essential to our resolve, individually and as a nation, to the preservation of our way of life and values we hold dear.

   Let me go back to Hannibal, Missouri, where I grew up because my life there is an important lesson on how we overcome adversity and is important on another topic in the news. Growing up in Hannibal, coming from a modest background, going to a legally segregated elementary school, by the measures of politicians and so-called social experts, I should not have learned anything in school. I never thought I was poor or even disadvantaged. It was not until I went to college and studied economics, political science and sociology did I realize how disadvantaged I should have been. Let me emphasize SHOULD have been. Because in reality, I was never disadvantaged.

   The reality is different – in part because of this adversity, I and many others I grew up with focused on our goals and achieved them. We had a tremendous support structure – parents, teachers who would never allow use the excuse or crutch of our socio-economic positions to deter us from excellence and giving 100% at everything we did. I had a great background in life.

   That is why it is good for an important public institution like the Department of Justice to have a workforce that is as diverse as possible and which reflects the rich and varied backgrounds of the people of this great nation. This is a high priority for Attorney General Ashcroft and me. Of course, diversity must be accomplished within acceptable legal norms, but at the Department of Justice it will be accomplished.

   When I look around the Administration in Washington, I find myself but one of a sizable – and influential – number of African-Americans in positions of authority, especially in our nation's fight against terrorism.

   I believe all of you know 2 of them: Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice – Two of President Bush's closest advisors.

   But, there are others:

   There is Ambassador Frank Taylor, who was in charge of the State Department's counter-terrorism efforts and remains a senior foreign policy leader. Before we launched the military offensive against the Taliban, Ambassador Taylor traveled the world making the case against Bin Laden.

   There is also Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services, Claude Allen. Mr. Allen is responsible for our country's war against chemical and biological terrorism. He is coordinating our country's medical and scientific efforts against the anthrax attack we experienced some time ago.

   Let me close by congratulating the 14 Black Men of Glynn County. Your work is an inspiration to all of us to overcome the failures that each of us has experienced in life – and to eventually triumph. You are an inspiration to me to keep pulling, to stay the course, so it has been really good to be here. We at the Department of Justice will press ahead in our important work and look forward to your continued cooperation and support. I believe we are on the right track in Washington but we will not be complacent. As Will Rogers once said, "even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." And we will not just sit there.

    Thank you. And God bless.

*NOTE: Mr. Thompson frequently speaks from notes and may depart from the speech as prepared. However, he stands behind the speech as presented in written format.