Skip to main content

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the Justice Department’s Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964


Washington, DC
United States

Sixty years ago, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this nation laid the cornerstone for our subsequent progress toward equal justice. It may be difficult today to appreciate the strength and courage required to bring about this change because we know how the story ended. The civil rights proponents in the 1960s did not. Confident in the justice of their cause — but not its success — they advocated and protested, suffered beatings and imprisonment and died.   

In fact, many in 1963 considered the effort quixotic. After all, Jim Crow still reigned. The South was key to President Kennedy’s coalition, and the civil rights bill he proposed in February 1963 was tepid at best. 

In Congress, too, the South dominated. Mississippi Senator James Eastland chaired the Judiciary Committee, where he killed more than 100 civil rights bills.

In the House, all bills went through the Rules Committee, likewise chaired by a segregationist who buried civil rights legislation. 

But the advocates did not give up. Throughout 1963, Dr. King skillfully intensified the pressure for reform. In April, imprisoned for demonstrations in Birmingham, he wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” reminding the nation to let “justice roll down like waters.” In May, as Attorney General Garland recounted, when children joined the demonstrations, a horrified nation watched police blast them with water cannons, beat them with clubs and tear into them with snarling dogs. Shortly after, President Kennedy proposed tougher civil rights legislation. 

When that legislation languished, civil rights advocates organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech inspired the nation with a vision of change.

The advocates held firm despite unimaginable violence: Medgar Evers, assassinated; Freedom Riders, murdered; the 16th Street Baptist Church, bombed; and countless other attacks that confirmed in blood the credibility of daily death threats against Dr. King and others.

Ultimately, as we know, they prevailed. After a 75-day filibuster, the bill passed by an overwhelming, bipartisan margin.  

The victory was revolutionary. Title II alone, banning discrimination in public accommodations, was monumental. Plessy, after all, concerned public accommodations. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the lunch counter sit-ins and thousands of other protests addressed this type of discrimination, the odious daily rebuke telling Black people they weren’t fit to sit near whites. And this practice is all but gone.

Sixty years later, much work remains, but the ’64 Act is a key reason we can do it. The Act enshrined a new charter of equal justice, extended federal law to the conduct of private parties and elevated civil rights as a federal priority. It also laid the groundwork for subsequent landmark reforms that buttressed civil rights enforcement, protected voting and housing rights and punished hate crimes. 

Using these tools, we charged more than 120 defendants with hate crimes in over 110 cases since January 2021, including the men who tragically killed Ahmaud Arbery just because he was Black, and the person who killed five and wounded 19 at Club Q in Colorado Springs, a haven for the LGBTQI+ community. We prosecuted more than 230 defendants in over 175 cases for police misconduct or otherwise depriving people of their rights while acting under color of law. We recovered over $122 million nationwide for communities of color victimized by modern-day redlining. We protected the precious right to vote, challenging discrimination against racial and ethnic groups, as well as people with disabilities and limited English proficiency. And we fought discrimination in education, employment, healthcare and many other areas.

The 1964 Act laid the groundwork for these efforts. It remains a testament to the brilliance, tenacity and courage of the heroes who fought, bled and died to achieve it. Just as the March on Washington continues on annually in honor of the tremendous will of the people, we too honor the Act’s legacy by rededicating ourselves every day to the cause of equal justice our heroes so valiantly served. 

And I will now turn it over to Justin Lock, the head of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service.

Civil Rights
Updated July 9, 2024