Justice News

Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division Tony West Speaks at the Department of Justice's Black History Month Celebration
Washington, DC
United States
Friday, March 4, 2011

Thank you. Richard, my thanks to you, the EEO Office and JMD for organizing this event. Rhea, that was a wonderful rendition of the National Anthem. Ron Machen, the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia, it’s always good to see you. I’m particularly pleased to be joined by the two North Stars in my life, my wife, Maya and my daughter, Meena. And to the members of the Cardozo High School Color Guard – thank you and please know that our prayers are with you in what is undoubtedly a difficult time for your community.

Mr. Attorney General: I am not used to being on this side of an introduction with you. Thank you for those kind words. Were it not for you, I would not be here. So let me thank you for your great leadership of this Department, your support of the Civil Division and your friendship to me. Thank you.

This is a great honor for me for so many reasons, not the least of which I consider this Department to be my professional home. It was here that I first learned to be a lawyer; where I learned my most important lessons about law and public service; and where I learned something that all of you already know: that the small steps we take in service can create giant leaps of difference.

Every year when we celebrate Black History Month, it’s that notion of small steps that sticks with me – long after the speeches are forgotten and the celebrations are over, what remains is the sense that while history is often taught as a series of big events forged by big names, the fact is our national story is more often written in the small, quiet steps of individual courage; the ordinary person who decides, often in a moment that’s unscripted, to act.

It’s the courage of a Black woman who sits in a seat reserved for Whites Only on public transportation, only to be removed and arrested by police for refusing to stand up.

Sound familiar?

If you’re thinking Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, you’re about a century too late. Kate Brown was a resident of this city, Washington D.C. And in 1868, she refused to leave the train car reserved for white ladies as it traveled from Alexandria to Washington. In that small, quiet moment, Kate Brown summoned the courage to take a stand and refused to budge.

Her knuckles were beaten, her arms were twisted, and, when the police threw her off of the train onto the platform, she was seriously injured. But that wasn’t enough to deter Ms. Brown. She sued the railroad company for damages in a case that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court five years later – and she won. Resting its decision on a D.C. law that outlawed racial discrimination on all modes of transportation, the High Court said that separate train cars for black passengers were not equal.

To me, that’s the essence of what we celebrate at this time every year. Those moments when we’re called upon to move beyond our own careful plans; when the measure of our personal growth and public contribution depend upon our willingness to engage the uncertain.

It’s the kind of courage we are called upon to exercise unexpectedly, often when it’s inconvenient — what King called the “Knock at Midnight” — the courage we sometimes exhibit in spite of ourselves.

I remember as a kid learning about those African American men and women who stretched beyond the secure and familiar and in so doing bent the arc of history.

I was riveted by stories of the black soldiers who fought for the Union cause in the Civil War – soldiers like the famed Massachusetts 54th, a voluntary infantry that was the first official African-American army regiment in the North.

A Confederate government order declared that any black soldier captured on the field of battle would be treated as a fugitive slave, even if that soldier had been free upon entering the Army. Confederate troops would bring thousands of shackles to the battlefield in anticipation of capturing black soldiers and bringing them into bondage.

But still these young African-American men and boys – some not much older than I was at the time I first heard the stories – they traveled deep into the Confederate South to fight – and in many cases die – not for fortune, or land or even prestige, but for an idea: the belief that the Declaration of Independence was more than the collection of faded words on old parchment paper.

The ranks of the 54th weren’t filled with lawyers or doctors or politicians. Yet their legacy and that of the nearly 200,000 black soldiers who fought in the Civil War – men whomPresident Lincoln credited with turning the tide of war – their legacy is as powerful as any president’s.

And yet, I’ve heard people wonder whether, 150 years after the first cannons were fired in the Civil War, a celebration of Black History Month is still necessary. In fact, over 80 years ago the founder of what became Black History Month – Dr. Carter Woodson – is said to have hoped aloud that this special recognition of African American historical contribution would one day outlive its usefulness.

And in the face of undeniable progress by African Americans – in business and philanthropy, government and science – when the Nation is led at the highest levels by African Americans, some have asked, is Black History Month still relevant?

The answer to that question, I believe, lies in the enduring lessons this annual celebration teaches; lessons that are as relevant today as they have been at any time – perhaps more so. At its core, this month is an annual renewal of our faith in an idea as old as the scriptures: that the work of liberty is never done, and that each of us has work to do.

Once those black Civil War soldiers won the opportunity to fight Confederates on the battlefield, they immediately had to wage battle on a second front: a fight for equal pay. You see, black soldiers were paid only a fraction of what their white counterparts received.

They reacted with repeated pleas for fairness and with protest, refusing to line up at the army pay tables to receive their salaries at month’s end. They’d rather not be paid at all than to ratify the perception that they were less than any man.

One corporal, writing to President Lincoln, put it this way: Sir, “We are fully armed and equipped, [we] have done all the various Duties pertaining to a Soldiers life, . . . we have dyed the ground with blood, in defense of the Union, and Democracy. . . . We have done a Soldier’s Duty. Why can’t we have a Soldier’s pay?”

These stories are more than lessons about dates and places. They teach us that progress is not inevitable; that change – like love – is sometimes painful and often hard; requires patience and persistence; courage and humility; that history is not a straight line but a cycle with setbacks and false starts; ironies and contradictions.

And Black History Month reminds us that these contradictions go to the heart of our collective democratic aspirations; that these battles don’t belong to any one people or any particular generation; they belong to all of us – to each of us.

They are part of our shared story as a Nation; battles waged in the name of becoming a More Perfect Union; part of the American fabric that forms a common web of shared history and shared destiny – what Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” that bind us together as one People and one Nation.

In this way, no matter your race or creed; where you live or what you do; how you worship or who you love, this month – this Black History Month – is for you.

And this month reminds us that the unfinished work of liberty is not past. It is here. It is now.

I think this is especially true for those of us privileged to work at a place called “Justice.”

It doesn’t matter whether we’re in the front office or the field office; whether we’re a secretary or lawyer; paralegal or support staff; economist or program analyst, by your daily work you prove that courageous and consequential acts need not be confined to valor on a battlefield or the pages of a history book.

As public servants, you know what it means to work tirelessly, sometimes anonymously, to improve the lives of people you will never meet. You are the investigative agent placed in harm’s way to keep us safe; the DOJ employee who gives up Saturdays and evenings to staff pro bono clinics; the lawyer whose selfless act of donating a kidney to a colleague in another component saved a life; you know the rewards — and the challenges — courageous service can bring.

And even though these acts often go unnoticed, and are sometimes unappreciated, you know that the value of your work is not in the public reward but in the tiny ripples of hope that are created by the many private, unseen acts of service – ripples that, to paraphrase Robert Kennedy, cross each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, building a tidal wave of progress that moves our Nation forward in acts both good and great.

I’ve often said that one of the greatest gifts of my current role is to work with career employees who are constantly aware of the responsibility to stand firm in moments of difficult decision; to do not what’s popular, or political or partisan, but to do what is right.

It’s a lesson I first learned as a young DOJ attorney in Main Justice over 15 years ago. Back then, as a Special Assistant, I had the good fortune to do much of my work for then-Attorney General Janet Reno.

Just before I left Main Justice to return to my home state of California to join the U.S. Attorney’s office as a federal prosecutor, Attorney General Reno asked to see me, one-on-one.

And during that meeting, she showed me the inscription on the wall just outside her private office, which reads, and I’m paraphrasing: “The Government wins its case when justice is done.”

And she told me then that my job as a prosecutor wasn’t to win as many cases as I could, but to do justice in every case I handled.

And if Black History Month means anything, it means the work of doing justice is never done.

As long as there are student victims of anti-gay harassment, this month will be relevant.

As long as we need coordinators to travel to college campuses to discuss eradicating intimate partner violence, this month will be relevant.

As long as oil pollutes our Gulf Coast, or financial fraud victims need help, or churches burn because of hate, this month will be relevant.

Because as long as the fight for justice is relevant, Black History Month will be relevant.

The color of justice comes in many shades. Every opportunity we have to serve something larger than our own lives, to stand up for somebody because sometime, somewhere, somebody stood up for us – each time we have the opportunity to stretch and engage the uncertain, that’s an invitation to be our best selves.

And like so many whose names we remember and lives we admire – like those black soldiers and Kate Brown – our success will be measured not by the things we acquire, or the awards we receive, or the money we make; but rather, by the hearts we touch, the souls we enrich, the doors we open and the lives we change.

Thank you very much.

Updated September 17, 2014