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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Opening Remarks at National Action Network's Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared

I want to thank Reverend Al Sharpton, Ebonie Riley and the National Action Network team for the invitation to join you today. It is a special honor to be here as NAN marks over three decades of advocacy and organizing across the country in the pursuit of criminal justice reform, corporate responsibility, economic justice, voting rights and much more. Rev. Sharpton, thank you for your leadership.

We come together today to honor Dr. Martin Luther King at a pivotal moment in American democracy. I don’t want to sugarcoat my description of where we stand today.

It was barely a year ago that thousands of our fellow Americans stormed the U.S. Capitol in one of the most brazen attacks on democracy in our nation’s history.

I am and never have been under any illusion that America has struggled to live up to the promise of her ideals. The challenges we face are daunting — threatening to turn back the clock on the progress we have made as a nation.

It is in these difficult times that I look to the words of Dr. King for inspiration on how to move forward.

A favorite quote of mine comes from his Letter from Birmingham Jail – “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That, of course, is a powerful quote and a critical tenet of all civil rights work. But it is actually the next line in Dr. King’s letter that feels most resonant today. He wrote, quote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Really listen to that.

“A single garment of destiny.” Divided, we will unravel. But united – united, we can face any challenge.

That is the message I want to share with you today on behalf of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

There is no doubt that we are facing profound challenges in our nation. But we are choosing to face them together.

In the summer of 2020, millions of Americans of all ages, races, and creeds took to the streets to demand justice – justice for George Floyd, yes, but also justice for the countless men, women and children whose names and stories we will never know.

It will remain our job to honor all these stories, known and unknown, by boldly confronting injustice with clear reform and action. In Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, he cried out to his fellow Americans who had been quote: “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.” Calls for police accountability and reform remains today.

That is why the division has worked to hold accountable not only individual police officers who violate people’s civil rights, but also police departments that engage in unconstitutional policing. We currently have investigations pending into police departments in Louisville and Minneapolis, Phoenix, Arizona and Mt. Vernon, New York. Make no mistake, the work of ensuring that all Americans have access to constitutional policing remains one of our top priorities.

My colleagues and I hear the echoes of Dr. King in every aspect of our work. We hear Dr. King as we fight unlawful redlining by banks and lending institutions. We hear Dr. King as we take on landlords who resort to discriminatory tactics to deny Black people and families access to fair housing opportunity. We hear Dr. King as we fight school districts that fail to protect students from discrimination, racial harassment, and abusive policies such as seclusion and restraint. We hear Dr. King as we stand up to protect the rights of workers subjected to hostile work environments and discriminatory hiring practices. We hear Dr. King as we confront unconstitutional conditions inside our nation’s prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities. We hear Dr. King as we prosecute perpetrators of heinous hate crimes. I truly believe that we are following the path Dr. King laid out for us.

I feel privileged and humbled to be heading the Civil Rights Division at this moment of profound challenge for our democracy. Our team of dedicated lawyers and professionals are working hard to meet some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

In his famous “Give us the ballot” speech, Dr. King acknowledged that voting alone isn’t enough – that we must use that power and turn it into real change. But he also knew that without the power to vote, democracy withers.

The Department of Justice is committed to making sure that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter can cast a ballot free from discrimination and harassment. That’s why we sued to stop Texas’ Senate Bill 1 which impairs the rights of Black and Latino voters, and why we will keep fighting to make sure everyone can vote, all those votes are counted, and the results of those votes are honored.

That said, with stronger tools, we know that we can do even more to protect the right to vote for all Americans. That is why we unequivocally support and urge Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act. The Voting Rights Act has been one of our nation’s most effective federal laws when it comes to protecting the right to vote – a central right in our democracy.

As Dr. King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the true heroes are those who step into the breach in our darkest moments. Quote: “They will be the James Meredith’s, courageously and with a majestic sense of purpose facing jeering and hostile mobs and the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women…They will be young high school and college students, young ministers of the gospel and a host of their elders courageously and nonviolently sitting in at lunch counters and willingly going to jail for conscience's sake.”

Just as during the Civil Rights Movement, the true heroes of our time will be our neighbors – young, old, Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Alaskan Natives – who understand that we are all united and our futures are entwined together – that, in King’s words, we are united in a single garment of destiny.

I am honored to fight for justice alongside all of you. Thank you for having me here today.

Updated January 21, 2022