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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Opening Remarks for the Civil Rights Division’s Fireside Chat: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you, Attorney General Garland, Associate Attorney General Gupta, Shaheena Simons, our speakers and panelists and everyone who has joined us today for our virtual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King has had a tremendous impact on all our lives, and his legacy of hope and his fierce commitment to justice and equality remain present in our day-to-day work at the Civil Rights Division. We are so fortunate to have lawyers from inside and outside of government, and civil rights leaders with us today who have also shared in the fight for justice and equality. I am truly honored to be among them and to talk about how Dr. King’s legacy as an American and as a leader inspired them and affected their work.

For decades the Civil Rights Division has upheld Dr. King’s legacy and fought for equal justice under law. Unfortunately, today our fight is not over, and we face new and even more insidious challenges to our dream of creating a just and equal society. Under this Administration, the Department of Justice has rededicated its resources towards combatting these challenges and protecting the most vulnerable in our society from discrimination and hate based on their race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or any other protected class.

The Biden Administration has put justice and equity at the forefront of its policy agenda. On the day he took office, President Biden signed the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Supporting Underserved Communities through Federal Government. Under Attorney General Garland, the Civil Rights Division has focused on reimagining justice and using our resources to expand our work by bringing new cases in areas including voting rights, hate crimes, environmental justice, police accountability, prison conditions, fair housing and fair lending and more.

Attorney General Garland’s very first directive to the Justice Department was to order an expedited internal review to determine how the department could deploy all the tools at its disposal to counter the ugly and sharp rise in hate crimes and hate incidents, especially against the Asian and Pacific Islander community. This includes increased law enforcement training and coordination, improved incident reporting, and more aggressive community outreach.

In another area, the Civil Rights Division recently opened its very first Title VI environmental justice investigation. That investigation is looking into whether the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Lowndes County Health Department operate their wastewater disposal program and infectious diseases and outbreaks program in a manner that discriminates against Black residents of Lowndes County, Alabama. Longtime civil rights advocates will be familiar with Lowndes County. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1965, there was not a single registered Black voter in Lowndes County despite the fact that Black people made up 80% of the county’s population. This investigation serves as a reminder that despite the tremendous progress in advancing racial justice, the legacy of Jim Crow runs deep and there is still significant work we have yet to accomplish. 

Acknowledging this history, the division has reaffirmed its commitment to protecting voting rights. In June of last year, the Attorney General noted the proliferation of state laws restricting access to voting and committed to doubling the division’s enforcement staff to protect the right to vote. Last week, in his remarks on the first anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, the Attorney General expressed that the protection of voting rights is a priority throughout and at the highest levels of the department, and this week, speaking from Atlanta, Georgia, President Biden described “the right to vote,” and the right to “have that vote counted,” as “democracy’s threshold liberty.” This has been a priority within the Civil Rights Division as well. This year, the division has brought multiple lawsuits and filed multiple statements of interest to protect voting rights for all Americans, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

As our country continues to struggle with institutionalized racism and harm against marginalized communities, the division has also worked to create and strengthen trust between communities and the government. This year alone, the department opened pattern or practice investigations into police departments in Louisville, KY, Minneapolis, MN, Mt. Vernon, NY and Phoenix, AZ; the department indicted police officers for misconduct in Minnesota and Louisiana; and the department opened an investigation of Georgia’s state prisons to examine whether prisoners are subject to violence, understaffing, and sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners. We also opened an investigation into juvenile detention facilities across the state of Texas – we stand ready to protect the rights of children who end up in these facilities and our investigation will ensure that the treatment of these children comports with the constitutional standards.

In the last few months, the division also launched our most aggressive and coordinated effort to date to combat redlining, one of the most longstanding and pernicious forms of lending discrimination. This work is about leveling the playing field when it comes to homeownership in our country. Of course, this work ties directly to Dr. King’s efforts to promote economic justice.

Dr. King’s legacy has shown us that social justice and civil rights require us to step up and demand access and fairness in all aspects of American life. During my tenure here in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, I have made it my mission to remain steady along the path that Dr. King carved out for us. I look forward to continuing that journey with the core tenet that Dr. King taught us – that we can and must work together to create not just our American dream but our dream America.

Today, I am delighted to welcome two extraordinary American leaders and civil rights leaders in their own right – Governor Deval Patrick, who served as the 71st Governor of Massachusetts and previously held my position as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and Sherrilyn Ifill, the current President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Thank you both very much for being here with me today. I am so grateful to the both of you for joining this year’s commemoration of Dr. King.

In our conversation today, I would like to talk about the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, I want to talk about this moment that we are in right now in our country, and discuss where we can go from here as we fight our way towards a more just, equal and equitable society.

Updated January 21, 2022