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Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the Opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum


Greensboro, NC
United States

Thank you, Senator Hagan, for your introduction.

  Margaret Mead’ s famous insight perfectly describes what happened here in Greensboro 50 years ago. She said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has"

50 years ago four young students set out to change the world – And I am truly honored to be here today on behalf of President Obama, who personifies the change those students sparked.

It is appropriate that we mark this historic anniversary with the landmark grand opening of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. Our most important historic moments would lose meaning if we didn’t work hard to remember them, and to continue to learn from them.

Those four young men, tired of injustice, hatched a plan to challenge it. They knew it would take courage to sit down at that lunch counter and stand up for their rights. They understood what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., meant when he wrote four years later, in a narrow cell in Birmingham, that "I am not afraid of the word tension…Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension on society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."

Those four young men created tension. They forced this city to face up to its shortcomings, to acknowledge that there was injustice here. The nonviolent tension they created led to real change, and today we celebrate that change.

Our nation’s laws no longer allow segregated lunch counters. Thanks to the courage and persistence of those four students, and so many other civil rights heroes, our society no longer condones discrimination on buses, in schools, in places of business. Our laws now protect equal rights and forbid acts of hate.

But that doesn’t mean the work is complete. The long journey toward equal justice is not over. To be sure, we have reached some remarkable milestones along the way toward our most worthy goal. But discrimination and bigotry persist. They persist in blatant forms – burned crosses, burned churches, hate-fueled assaults. And they persist in more subtle, yet equally devastating ways in so many of our communities and institutions.

We see it in our education system, where many children still go to schools that are all too frequently substandard. We see it in the foreclosure crisis, where communities of color were all too frequently preyed upon by lenders who used the corrosive power of fine print, and bait and switch tactics – discrimination with a smile – to transform the American dream into a nightmare. We see it in our workplaces, where glass ceilings often shatter opportunities for qualified women and minorities. We see it in the voting booth, where poll tests and taxes have been replaced by more subtle tactics that dilute voting strength.

In short, we need this Civil Rights Museum so that we remember our history, however painful it may be. We need a robust Civil Rights Division so that we can continue to break down barriers to equal opportunity, and continue our quest to fulfill our nation’s promise of equal justice for all. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have made clear that the Civil Rights Division is open for business, and I can think of no better way to pay tribute to Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Jibreel Khazan and David Richmond than to ensure the vigorous enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws.

Updated September 17, 2014