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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the Birmingham Civil Rights Conference


Birmingham, AL
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for that kind introduction.

It is truly an honor to be at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church once again. I was here this fall along with Pastor Price and with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, former Senator Doug Jones and many others to commemorate the 1963 bombing that happened here.

As you’ve heard, this Civil Rights Conference is hosted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama, the local FBI Field Office and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It was under U.S. Attorney, later Senator, Doug Jones, that fought for justice following the horrific act of violence that killed four precious little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Their lives mattered. They were, in Dr. King’s words, “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” It was this U.S. Attorney’s Office who prosecuted the defendants, Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, for their roles in that act.

In many ways, the case exemplifies Dr. King’s observation that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Dr. King was not suggesting that the moral arc of the universe bends by itself, that justice results from some providential force or that it is inevitable. To the contrary, Dr. King’s message was that all of us must actively work to achieve justice and it is the collective weight and force of our efforts that bends the arc.

Dr. King made that point right here in Birmingham. In April 1963, he was locked up in a Birmingham jail for violating a state court injunction against protests seeking racial justice. From jail, he wrote a letter to local clergy who had called his demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” Dr. King’s response was blunt. He described Birmingham as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.” He cited the city’s “ugly record of police brutality” and its notoriously “unjust treatment” of Blacks in the courts. And he noted that Birmingham had “more unsolved bombings of [Black] homes and churches . . . than in any city in this nation.”

It was this very injustice that brought Dr. King to Birmingham. He wrote that “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” He could not sit idly by in Atlanta, Dr. King wrote, because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And this injustice demanded action, because, he said, “we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Dr. King’s concern about the purveyors of hate in the city was well-founded. Three weeks after his letter, public safety commissioner Bull Connor blasted fire hoses, unleashed dogs and used Billy clubs on kids — children — who were peacefully demonstrating in downtown Birmingham, as the rest of the nation watched on television, transfixed in horror. The national revulsion forced some reforms in the Jim Crow practices of Birmingham businesses.

And then, just four months later, came the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The prosecutors in this office and their partners in the FBI worked for years to bring their killers to justice. Community leaders here in Birmingham and elsewhere persisted — for decades — in demands that the federal government pursue this case. These efforts ultimately helped bend the arc of the moral universe, at least in this one case. It only took 40 years.   

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church occurred within the lifetimes of some 75 million Americans alive today. And yet, the events and the context in which they transpired may seem unfathomable to us, reflecting racism so wide and so deep as to defy our experience. In Birmingham in 1963, Jim Crow was pervasive, alive and well. Discrimination infected every aspect of the social order. And hostility — indeed, hatred — toward those who would upset that order was widespread.

Today, Jim Crow laws are dead. Birmingham has a Black mayor and six Black city council members. The city is diverse, cosmopolitan and vibrant. But the impact of centuries of brutality and unfairness persists, in economic inequality, residential segregation and discrimination in many facets of life.

As to hate crimes and hate incidents, the impunity that was common in 1963 no longer reigns. Overt racism is socially unacceptable. But haters still hate. The intensity of their animosity has not subsided, and — on a national level — the dark forces of hate are resurgent.

In 1998, 35 years after the bombing in Birmingham, virulent hatred based on race still poisoned the hearts of three white supremacists as they tied James Byrd Jr. behind a car and dragged him to his death along an asphalt road in Jasper, Texas. Malign hatred still flourished just a few months later when two men in Wyoming tied 21-year-old Matthew Shepard to a split rail fence, beat him, tortured him and left him to die, just because he was gay.

It is because of the ongoing risk posed when the tragedies of prior generations become the tragedies of today’s generations that the work of the Justice Department, Civil Rights Division, our FBI partners and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices is so important. 

These heinous crimes prompted Congress to adopt the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law was an important addition to our legal arsenal to combat hate. And we have used these tools effectively. We obtained 90 consecutive life sentences against the man who killed 23 Hispanic people and wounded 22 others at an El Paso, Texas, Wal-Mart because he thought there were too many immigrants from Mexico. We obtained a guilty verdict, and the court imposed the death penalty, on the rabid anti-Semite who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. And we brought a 27-count indictment alleging that the man who killed 10 Black people at a Tops Grocery store in Buffalo, New York, did so because Blacks were supposedly replacing white people in this country.

The loss of life in these cases was horrible and tragic. The loved ones of the victims have endured grief that is unimaginable. But the trauma has reverberated much, much further, because hate crimes are message crimes. The perpetrators not only target their direct victims but also seek to instill fear in the victims’ community. They intend to incite terror, to make members of the affected racial, ethnic and religious communities feel insecure, unwanted and afraid to go about their day-to-day lives.

Our prosecutions, though, send a louder and more powerful message: that hate crimes will not be tolerated in our democracy; that perpetrators will be punished and held accountable and that the communities targeted will be safeguarded by the federal government.

These mass murders are just a tiny portion of the hate crimes that plague our nation, and just a small percentage of our prosecutions.  

For example, earlier this month, a Dallas man was sentenced to 37 years in prison for killing one person and attempting kill four others because he believed they were Muslims.

In February, a jury convicted a South Carolina man for killing a transgender woman because of her gender identity. The defendant was the first to be found guilty by trial verdict for a hate crime motivated by gender identity under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Last fall, a Florida man was sentenced for his attack on a group of Black men who were surveying a site for a potential memorial regarding the 1923 racial Rosewood, Massacre.

And in 2022, we convicted three men for hate crimes in the shooting and killing Ahmaud Arbery. At trial, the evidence showed that the defendants’ virulent racist beliefs led them to stereotype and dehumanize Mr. Arbery simply because he was Black. Two defendants were sentenced to life in prison and the third to 35 years.

This work reflects a fundamental obligation of federal law enforcement, protecting the right of each person to dwell in their home, work at their job, jog down a street, shop at a store and engage in acts of daily living without fear of attack based on how they look, where they are from, how they worship or who they love.

For that reason, battling hate crimes is one of the Civil Rights Division’s highest priorities. Since January 2021, the department has charged more than 120 defendants in over 110 cases for committing hate crimes. During that same period, the department has obtained hate crime convictions against more than 100 defendants.

But we are swimming upstream. According to FBI statistics, in 2022, reported hate crimes increased 11% from the previous high level in 2021. More than 60% of those crimes are based on race or ethnicity, and most of those involve crimes against Black people. Hate incidents based on antisemitism were up 25% in 2022, and that was before the surge in such crimes, after the Oct. 7 attacks last year in Israel. Anti-Muslim crimes jumped as well. And we continue to see a profusion of hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity and national origin.

We will not back down from the fight against hate. We will not relent in our quest for accountability. But we know that we cannot prosecute our way to an end of hate crimes. We also need to prevent these actions from taking place at all. That’s why, in 2022, the Attorney General announced United Against Hate, a nationwide community outreach and engagement program designed to increase awareness about hate crimes and incidents.

Over the past two years, all 94 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices have hosted hundreds of United Against Hate programs, bringing together thousands of community groups, community leaders and law enforcement at every level to build trust and strengthen coordination to combat unlawful acts of hate. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama has participated actively and effectively. Thank you for your efforts.

At the Civil Rights Division, we are dedicated to holding the perpetrators of hate crimes accountable and uprooting unlawful acts of hate, root and branch. But we cannot forget the context in which the Birmingham bombing occurred — the efforts of the civil rights movement to achieve racial justice. We are thus continuing the fight against discrimination and for equal justice on many other fronts, from combating modern-day redlining by banks, to taking on police misconduct, to preserving the right to vote and much more.

The legacy that Dr. King left is enshrined in laws that undergird our work at the Civil Rights Division. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act and other laws in subsequent years have given us tools to fight discrimination, to prosecute hate crimes and to safeguard constitutional rights.

We have used those tools to confront discrimination and advance equal opportunity in employment, housing, education and more. We have safeguarded equal access by people with disabilities and defended those who serve in our nation’s armed forces, past and present. We have vindicated the rights of sexual assault survivors and people who experience sexual harassment in education, workplaces, housing and in jails and prisons. We have protected people from redlining, securing more than $120 million in recoveries for victims of discrimination in lending.

We have worked to ensure that law enforcement personnel carry out their jobs lawfully and without bias. We prosecute officers who abuse their power, including officers tied to the tragic deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. And officers tied to the violent assault and torture of two Black men in Rankin County, Mississippi — officers who called themselves the Good Squad.

We also conduct investigations of law enforcement agencies engaged in a “pattern or practice” of conduct that violates the Constitution and other federal laws. Two years ago, in the aftermath of Ms. Taylor’s death, we opened a civil investigation into the city of Louisville and its police department. Last year, we announced our findings that Louisville and the police department engaged in unlawful conduct. The city has committed to working with us, with community members and with other stakeholders to embark upon a new path to reform.

We are investigating other police departments as well, including in Memphis; Phoenix; Mount Vernon, New York; New York City, the Louisiana State Police; Lexington, Mississippi; and more.

Another major mission of the division is to ensure that every eligible American has a voice in our democracy, to protect the right to vote, which the Supreme Court has said is “preservative of all other rights.” Voter suppression laws have spread like poison ivy across the country. We’re seeing discriminatory, burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on access to the ballot. And we’re seeing discriminatory redistricting plans that dilute the voting strength of Blacks and other voters of color. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has constricted the department’s tools to counter this discrimination.

In the face of these challenges, the Attorney General has affirmed the department’s commitment to “ensuring that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter has access to accurate information. He pledged that “the Department of Justice will never stop working to protect the democracy to which all Americans are entitled.”

We have brought multiple lawsuits and filed briefs across the country to protect voting rights for all Americans, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable communities. In one case in Arizona, we filed a brief addressing the application of the voter intimidation provision of the Voting Rights Act. In that case, private litigants sued challenging the presence of armed individuals outside absentee ballot drop box sites in Maricopa County. This election season will demand vigilance once again for potential acts of voter intimidation. I cannot overemphasize the importance of our work on voting rights. Many thousands of Americans fought and died to secure the right to vote for Blacks and other marginalized communities. Civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens were attacked, brutalized, even lynched just for claiming this most basic right. We will not forsake the sacrifices of these heroes. We will fight to ensure that every eligible individual can exercise the constitutional right to vote.

Dr. King reminded us that “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Such dedicated individuals fill the ranks of the Civil Rights Division, and they join with many others at the Justice Department, including the people here in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama and the FBI, who toil with us in to protect civil rights.

We look forward to continuing this work, to protecting the rights of all Americans and to achieving the equality so fundamental to our national values. And we pledge that we will stand with you, shoulder to shoulder, to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

Thank you.

Civil Rights
Hate Crimes
Updated April 15, 2024