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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at St. Joseph AME Church, Durham, NC


Durham, NC
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Good morning. Thank you so much for that very generous introduction. Pastor Augustine, I want to thank you for your life of leadership and service, from the courtroom to the pulpit. It has been truly inspiring watching you lead and watching your example throughout the years.

It is an honor and a privilege to be with all of you today. And I just want to take a moment to recognize the distinguished clergy and all those gathered for this morning’s service. And also thank again, North Carolina Senator Natalie Murdock – I thank you for your words and your recognition. I also want to acknowledge North Carolina Auditor Beth Wood, not sure if she’s with us. Mickey Michaux, I thank you for your service, as our first Black U.S. Attorney in the South since Reconstruction. I want to recognize my colleague, Kevin Jenkins, and my childhood friend, Charles Roberson, here from Rocky Mount. And I also just want to take a moment to thank Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.

And finally, I just want to lift up a personal shero and hero of mine, Ted Shaw, who I had the privilege of working for during my time at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and is someone who I have just admired at every stage of my journey, and North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls, who I also have admired from my time in law school as one of her former interns.

It is a journey that brings me here today and I'm so grateful for this honor to speak with you this morning.

As you all know well, Durham is no stranger to the civil rights movement. It was here in June of 1957 that a young pastor, Reverend Douglas Moore, a seminary classmate of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped to lead one of the most influential early sit-ins to protest racial segregation. Along with other Black activists, Reverend Moore staged a protest at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor on North Roxboro Street.

The “Royal Seven” not only fundamentally transformed the trajectory of this city, but of the entire nation. Their brave activism inspired a wave of other acts of civil disobedience across the South. And just a few months following their protests at Royal Ice Cream Parlor, President Eisenhower would go on to sign the first civil rights law since Reconstruction – the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. And so, it is no overstatement for me to say that the privilege I have each day of serving as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division is due in large part to the bravery and courage of men and women from the city of Durham.

It is also a tremendous honor to stand in the hallowed pulpit here at St. Joseph A.M.E. Church. This historic institution traces its history back over 150 years – almost the exact same age as the Justice Department, which was also founded in 1870.

As Attorney General Merrick Garland frequently reminds the public, when the Department of Justice was founded in the wake of the Civil War and in the midst of Reconstruction, its first task was to protect the rights of Black Americans; rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. The Department was charged with confronting and prosecuting white supremacists, including the Ku Klux Klan, who relied on violence and threats of violence to terrorize Black people and prevent them from voting, running for public office, and serving on juries.

Unfortunately, racial discrimination and hatred persist today. In recent years, reported hate crimes rose to their highest levels in nearly two decades. Last week, Monday, the FBI released new data that shows a 12% increase in hate crimes from 2020 to 2021. And more than half of hate crimes targeted Black people or were motivated by race and ethnicity. We are also confronting antisemitism, anti-Asian, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-Muslim bias. In recent years, purveyors of hate in multiple cities – from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh and from Buffalo to El Paso – have massacred innocent people based on their race, religion or sexual orientation. Sadly, we have seen hate rear its ugly head even inside our houses of worship. The 2015 shooting where a white supremacist killed nine peaceful Black worshipers in Charleston. The 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, resulting in the loss of 11 lives. These tragic massacres invoke memories of the four little girls who were murdered in September of 1963 following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

While separated apart in time, these attacks highlight the longstanding cancer of bigotry and hatred that has infected our nation for far too long. This year marks 60 years since the deaths of 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair, 14-year-old Carole Robertson and 14-year-old Cynthia Wesley. Three weeks after their death, Dr. King visited the 16th Street Baptist Church. And he looked out into a crowd of heartbroken congregants and bereaving parents and observed that these children – unoffending, innocent and beautiful – were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And in a sense, they have something to say to all of us in their death. They say to us – each of us – Black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their deaths say to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.

Understanding the systems and the way of life that produce hatred are an important part of the hard work that we must continue to carry out to confront hate. Alongside hate, we also know that we see discrimination in employment, housing, and schools, and with respect to voting. Voting rights — the right the Supreme Court has described as “preservative of all other rights” — is under assault.

These are not easy times. I know that there is fear and uncertainty in far too many communities across North Carolina and across the country. Nevertheless, I firmly believe in the opportunity for progress on civil rights in this country. I reject the defeatist predictions of decline and stagnation. Yes, we have work to do, but history reminds us of the need to keep marching forward. And if I may borrow from scripture, I reflect on the words in Micah chapter six verse eight, which tells us that we are all required “[t]o act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[.]”

This morning I am here to tell you that [in] the Civil Rights Division we are doing just that – we’re continuing that march forward every single day. We are on the front lines of our nation’s modern-day Civil Rights Movement and we’re waging battles against injustice on many fronts. And we are winning many of these battles. We are striking important blows for equality, for freedom and for the rule of law. We are making significant strides when it comes to some of the most pressing issues of our time – the need for law enforcement accountability, the need to eliminate hate root and branch, and the need to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable among us.

For the time I have this morning, I want to lift up our priorities and the work that we’re carrying out in North Carolina and across this nation to advance civil rights for all Americans.

I want to start with voting rights. Just two weeks ago, I spoke at the historic Brown Chapel AME service to honor those who participated in the Bloody Sunday march in 1965. The infamous day when peaceful civil rights protestors were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And on that day, troopers beat those protesters, including future Congressman John Lewis, so badly that they bore scars for the rest of their lives.

And I’ll note that Brown Chapel AME was critical for that march, serving both as a staging ground for marchers and a place of solace for those who were brutalized.

The moral outrage from Bloody Sunday is what led directly to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that I’ll aptly describe as the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet today, we face some of the most significant threats to our democracy in history. But to paraphrase Dr. King, we can find strength in our struggles and hope in our darkest moments, and we must continue to stand up.

Standing up for the rights of all eligible Americans to vote remains a foremost priority for us. We have filed multiple lawsuits to protect voting rights for all Americans, including our nation’s most vulnerable communities.

In Arizona, we sued to stop a law which imposes numerous unlawful restrictions on voter registration.

In Texas, we filed a lawsuit to stop the state’s new voting law that would prevent people who have disabilities or who are unable to read or write from receiving assistance from a person of their choice.

And when armed individuals stationed themselves outside of voting drop-boxes in Arizona during the most recent general election, we filed a brief to guide the court’s interpretation of the Voting Rights Act’s voter intimidation provisions.

We’ve also filed briefs supporting challenges to discriminatory and unfair voting practices in courts all across the country, including in Florida, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Kansas, New York, North Dakota and South Dakota.

We are also tackling hate crimes and racially-motivated violence head-on. Far too many people in this country – and far too many Black people and people of color – are victims of violence and discrimination and bigotry simply because of what they look like or who they are. As Attorney General Garland made clear, the Justice Department fully recognizes the threat that hatred and violent extremism violence pose to the safety of American people and our democracy. And we will continue to be relentless in our efforts to combat hate crimes, to support the communities terrorized by hate, and hold accountable those who perpetrate hate.

And that is why we are using our federal civil rights laws like the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act to prosecute the defendant who killed 10 Black people at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York. And that’s also why we secured convictions and sentences against all three men responsible for the racially-motivated killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. When we brought those defendants to trial, the evidence showed the defendants had strongly held racist beliefs that led them to stereotype and dehumanize Mr. Arbery simply because he was Black. In August of last year, two defendants were given life sentences, and the third defendant, who is 52 years old, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

And I want to give you a snapshot of what just two weeks looks like with respect to our hate crimes enforcement work. In March alone, a Mississippi man was sentenced to federal prison for burning a cross on the front yard of a Black family while yelling racial slurs and threats. A few days later, we indicted a man in Gainesville, Florida, after he used his vehicle to carry out a racially-motivated attack on a group of six Black men on a public road in Cedar Key, Florida. And just last Thursday, a white supremacist in Georgia received a 22-year sentence following a racially-motivated shooting aimed at killing Black and Arab people at gas stations in Jonesboro, Georgia. We will use every tool in our arsenal to hold perpetrators of hate accountable.

But we know that we can’t prosecute our way out of hate alone, and that’s why we’re also using tools of prevention and public education and community-building to fight back. And together with all 94 United States Attorneys’ Offices across the country, we are working to forge community partnerships to educate the public and law enforcement about stopping and addressing hate.

In the Division we also have the authority to address hate incidents, which are acts of bias and discrimination which may not rise to the level of a crime, but still leave people victimized because of who they are or what they look like, or what they believe. And we’ve used this authority to address acts of hatred and bigotry in schools, workplaces, homes and communities. For example, we recently secured a settlement with a school district in Utah that had failed for years to address serious and widespread harassment and bullying of Black and Asian-American students. We found that although Black and Asian-American students are each roughly 1% of the district’s population, there were numerous reports of use of the “N-word,” physical assaults targeting these students, and complete unresponsiveness on the part of officials. Our settlement requires significant institutional reforms and other relief that will help ensure that those students have a safe learning environment going forward.

Simply put, every student, every young person must be able to walk through the schoolhouse door without being subjected to unlawful harassment or bias-motivated violence.

And I want to underscore a principle that animates all of our work at the Justice Department.

No one – no one – is above the law. And that’s why we are holding law enforcement officials accountable when they violate civil and constitutional rights. In the past year, the Justice Department secured convictions and sentences against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer responsible for the tragic death of George Floyd, and against the three officers who failed to intervene to stop the killing. 

As noted earlier, we have also secured indictments against officers involved in the events leading to the tragic death of Breonna Taylor. Nearly three years ago to the day, in March of 2020, Ms. Taylor should have awakened in her apartment, just like any other morning and tragically, she did not.

Leading up to that fateful day, Louisville officers drafted what they knew was a false affidavit in support of a search warrant for her home. When other officers executed that warrant, they broke down the door to Ms. Taylor’s apartment. Ms. Taylor had a guest who lawfully owned a handgun, and he thought intruders were breaking into the apartment. This led to an exchange of gunfire that resulted in Ms. Taylor’s death. Last summer, we brought charges against the three officers who falsified the warrant and another officer who recklessly discharged his firearm during the execution of the warrant.

Every American deserves Constitutional policing in our country.

We opened a “pattern or practice” investigation into the police department and city government. We investigated for two years and left no stone unturned. And we found that the Louisville police department routinely seeks search warrants for residences without establishing a legal justification for doing so. Officers often served these warrants at night and unjustifiably barged into people’s homes without knocking and announcing their presence. We found that Louisville police officers routinely conducted unjustified stops, searches and arrests; and were unnecessarily aggressive when dealing with people experiencing behavioral health crises. We found that officers used excessive force and engaged in discriminatory policing when it comes to traffic stops and more. And it’s noted just two weeks ago, we announced those findings and more. We released an 80-page report detailing how the Louisville police department and Louisville Metro Government did, in fact, engage in a “pattern or practice” of conduct that violated the Constitution and our federal civil rights laws.

Fortunately, there is hope for a new day. The city’s leaders have committed working with the Justice Department to embark on a path to reform. They have agreed to enter into a consent decree with the Justice Department, along with an independent monitor, and working with community members and stakeholders to ensure that meaningful reforms are put in place to address the problems we’ve identified.

I’ll add that Louisville is not the only place where we are doing this work. We are also in Minneapolis, Phoenix, New York City, Louisiana and more.

We’re also taking on banks that engage in modern-day redlining, the practice of refusing to offer certain neighborhoods equal access to credit opportunities to because of the race of the people who live there.

Now, you might be thinking — isn’t redlining from a bygone era, something that happened a long time ago? It is true that it is a problem from a bygone era that continues to rear its ugly head today.

Today, a white family is 30% more likely to own a home than a Black family. This means that the homeownership gap between Black and white families is larger today than it was in 1960, before the passage of the Fair Housing Act.

We know that this homeownership gap is a major contributor to the racial wealth gap that we see in this country: the median wealth of a Black family is about $24,000, while the median wealth of a white family is approximately $188,000. That means that the wealth of white families in America today is about seven and a half times greater than that of Black families.

These grim statistics cannot, and will not, deter the Justice Department from action. That’s why we launched the nationwide Combating Redlining Initiative in 2021 – our most aggressive and coordinated effort yet to address this crisis.

Through the initiative, we are working with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across throughout the country to confront fair lending concerns on a broad geographic scale. Since 2021 when we launched the initiative, we have secured nearly $85 million dollars in relief for communities across the country including in Los Angeles, Newark, Memphis, Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio; and Houston, Texas. And we’re not slowing down. We will continue to stand up to discriminatory lending practices wherever we confront them.

I would be remiss today if I did not acknowledge the central place that North Carolina has occupied in our nation’s struggle for environmental justice. From the drinking water crises in Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan, to the Appalachian communities devastated by mudslides to the cumulative burdens of pollution posed by multiple industrial sources in cancer alley in southern Louisiana, environmental justice is a critical civil rights issue. Environmental justice must be understood as part of the broader and enduring fight for justice itself.

And it was right next door in Warren County where, in the heart of the Black farming community that feels like so many small towns in America, that the modern environmental justice movement was born. Forty-one years ago in September of 1982, residents began six weeks of protests that produced a historic shift in perspective. Connecting communities and compelling industry and government to acknowledge that far too often, an American’s health and life expectancy turn on where she lives. Residents of Warren County organized weeks of nonviolent protests to stop plans to dispose tens of thousands of tons of PCB-laced soil in a local landfill. Community members blocked trucks with their bodies and were arrested by the hundreds.

These protests laid bare some undeniable truths. Anyone can be exposed to environmental pollution, feeling the worsening effects of climate change or fall victim to an environmental crime. It is also true, though that low-income communities, Black communities, communities of color and Tribal communities bear these hardships disproportionately. That's why we have made environmental justice a top priority.

Months ago, we launched an Office for Environmental Justice. And in the Division we're taking these battles head on in places like Lowndes County, Alabama, where people lack access to adequate wastewater treatment and sewage removal systems. In the absence of viable wastewater disposal systems for generations, residents, mostly low-income Black people, have had no choice but to resort to the crude practice of straight piping, bathwater people water and other waste away from their homes, and during rainstorms or flooding this raw sewage can backup to people's homes, onto playgrounds or other public areas. Diseases resulting from exposure to raw sewage include hookworm and other life-threatening illnesses. It is 2023. No one in the United States should be exposed to illness or disease because of the harms that result from environmental racism. I thank the activists of North Carolina for shining a light on this core principle four decades ago.

There’s so much more I could talk about, but as I close, I just want to note that we are continuing our work to combat sexual harassment and work to confront human trafficking, issues that disproportionately impact women and girls. We are working to enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act in all contexts, including in law enforcement personnel responses to emergency calls placed by people experiencing mental health disabilities.

But because this is Women’s History Month, I want to close by reflecting on a woman, and a Black woman, who has served as a source of inspiration and pride for me throughout my life and career: the great Constance Baker Motley. Some of you may be unfamiliar with Ms. Motley, who was born in 1921 and died in 2005. She was a legendary civil rights lawyer: she worked alongside Thurgood Marshall at the great NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She was involved in Brown v. Board of Education and many other landmark civil rights cases.

She was the first Black woman to argue before the U.S Supreme Court; and in fact, she argued 10 cases before that court and won nine of them. She served as a New York state senator, the Borough President of Manhattan, and was the first Black woman appointed to the federal bench where she served as a federal district judge in the Southern District of New York.

Her legal strategies defined many of the core battles of the Civil Rights Movement from the desegregation of colleges and public schools, and public amenities, ensuring equal pay for Black teachers; she fought for the inclusion of Blacks to serve on juries and fought for the right to peacefully protest. And during her career, she urged the Justice Department to think boldly and more expansively about how to bring our nation closer to its ideals. She called on the Justice Department to bring more resources to bear to on victims of voting discrimination in the South. And much like Rosa Parks, she refused to take a back seat. She believed deeply in our collective power to build a nation that truly guarantees liberty and justice for all. She believed that we could be the country we all dreamed of.

Throughout her career, Ms. Motley – like so many women, and so many Black women – had her contributions ignored or diminished. But she was determined never to give up. With determination and a keen legal mind, she turned the gears of justice. And when those gears did not exist, she built them herself. I stand before you today as the first woman, and the first Black woman, confirmed by the U.S. Senate to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. And I owe that to the hard work and foundation laid by Ms. Motley and so many others, including so many Black women.

As I conclude, I want thank you for the honor and privilege to speak in this historic and beautiful sanctuary today. I want to remind you that the Civil Rights Division will remain committed to advancing the rights of all people in this country. While there are challenges and while there may be dark days, know that we will never abandon our fundamental mission. Know that we stand in partnership and solidarity with all of you. We will continue to follow in the footsteps of those who came before us and walk humbly forward together toward justice. Thank you.

Updated March 24, 2023