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A Message from the Attorney General on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail

April 16, 2013

Fifty years ago today, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the Birmingham City Jail, having been arrested four days earlier for participating in a local civil rights march without a permit.  There in his cell, on scraps of newsprint, he began to draft what became one of the most important documents of the Civil Rights era. In that famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King wrote that, “all communities and states” are interrelated.  He declared that “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  And he implored his fellow citizens to move with “a sense of great urgency” to help build the brighter future that everyone in this country deserves. Dr. King’s letter was a rebuke to those who cautioned civil rights advocates merely to “wait” for their constitutional rights to be protected, rather than standing up and speaking out to help secure those rights.  It served as a resounding call for Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life to continue the march towards equality and opportunity for all.  And it reaffirmed the values that were at the root of Dr. King’s actions and at the core of his life: tolerance, compassion, non-violence – and, above all, justice. Despite the adversity that surrounded him – and the darkness of his narrow jail cell – Dr. King was confident in our nation’s greatness.  He was proud of what this country had always stood for – and optimistic about what he knew it could become.  That’s why his vision – and his inspiring words – continue to guide our steps forward even today. For me, and for my colleagues at every level of the U.S. Department of Justice, the fundamental ideal that energized Dr. King – that justice is the right of all – lies at the center of our daily efforts to protect the American people from terrorism and other national security threats – including cowardly acts like the one we witnessed in Boston yesterday afternoon; to combat violent crime; to eradicate financial fraud; to safeguard the most vulnerable members of society; and to uphold the sacred civil rights to which everyone in this country is entitled.  This ideal also shapes our work to reform America’s criminal justice systems – and to ensure that the mechanisms of these systems promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency and fairness.  And it drives our efforts to close the so-called “justice gap” – by working with organizations like the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to expand access to civil legal aid for those who need it. This afternoon, I was proud to join Vice President Biden, Valerie Jarrett, LSC leaders, jurists, educators and members of the private bar at the White House in order to discuss the challenges we face in expanding legal assistance.  The unfortunate reality is that – even today – tens of millions of Americans cannot afford the assistance they need to avail themselves of their rights before our court system.  Studies have shown that, for every eligible person seeking help from a legal aid program, another eligible person is turned away.  And, for all the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress we've witnessed since Dr. King’s time – more than 80 percent of civil legal needs faced by low-income individuals continue to go unmet. As Attorney General, I've made expanding access to legal services a major focus for the Department of Justice.  Three years ago, I established a new office known as the Access to Justice Initiative to help spearhead national efforts to ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable and accessible for everyone in this country – regardless of status or income.  Last year, in cooperation with the White House Domestic Policy Council – the Justice Department helped launch an interagency roundtable, bringing together 17 agencies to raise awareness about the impact that civil legal aid can have in promoting access to health and housing, education and employment, family stability and community well-being.  The Department’s Office of Justice Programs is providing support for partnerships that educate, train, and equip lawyers to provide civil legal assistance.  Through events like today’s White House forum, and initiatives like the federal government’s Pro Bono Program, we’re encouraging professionals throughout our nation’s legal community to use their skills and training not simply to make a living, but to make a difference. As we continue these and other efforts, I believe there’s good reason for confidence in our ability to overcome the obstacles before us – and to help realize Dr. King’s vision for a more just society.  I’m optimistic about what we can accomplish – so long as we remain committed to working together.  And I look forward to all that we must, and will, achieve together in the months and years to come.

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Updated August 24, 2017