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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Civil Rights Division's 65th Anniversary


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Shaylyn, for that kind introduction. Greetings to my Civil Rights Division family!

This feels like a homecoming to me. I was deeply honored to serve as head of the Civil Rights Division from 2014 to 2017. And today, as Associate Attorney General, it is a true privilege to continue working closely with the Civil Rights Division. I feel so fortunate also to serve with an Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, a leadership team that truly believes that every part at the Justice Department, not just the Civil Rights Division, has a foundational obligation to protect civil rights.

And I want to acknowledge Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke and her leadership team and all of the former AAGs here of the Civil Rights Division who I am so deeply honored to see. It’s been too long. I also want to pay my respects to all of the current and former Division staff, your families, our civil rights stakeholders and partners. It’s really wonderful and heartwarming to see you all today.

At its founding in 1870, the Justice Department’s priority was to enforce civil rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments during Reconstruction, but it was almost 100 years before the creation of the Civil Rights Division. The precursor to the Civil Rights Division was the Civil Liberties Unit, established as part of the Criminal Division in 1939, and charged with studying constitutional and federal laws relating to civil rights. I don’t know how many of you knew that. I hadn’t tracked that until I was preparing this speech.

The Truman Committee actually first proposed creating the Division in 1947, to give federal civil rights enforcement the “prestige, power and efficiency” that it lacked while relegated to a unit within the Criminal Division. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 finally created the Civil Rights Division as a standalone division within the Justice Department. And the creation of a division exclusively to handle civil rights matters demonstrated a very significant elevation of civil – federal civil rights enforcement.

The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, as you well know, faced fierce opposition from members of Congress who rejected civil rights and supported racial segregation. In an infamous example of this staunch opposition, Senator Strom Thurmond conducted the longest individual filibuster in history — speaking for 24 hours — against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 faced similar opposition. But through the hard work, commitment and conviction of two presidents, members of Congress, courageous leaders and activists like Medgar Evers and Dr. King and so, so many more — people who risked their lives for their freedom and the freedom of others — the bill became reality. And the hard-fought battles surrounding the passage of these Acts signaled the civil rights battles that would be fought for years to come.

While the Civil Rights Act of 1957 set out a legal framework to prohibit discrimination, it largely addressed voting rights. But Black Americans were facing rampant and widespread discrimination not only in access to the ballot, but in almost every area of their lives. And the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination beyond voting — prohibiting discrimination in employment, public accommodations, schools and more. It also enlarged the categories that – people that the law protects, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and national origin. In doing so, it forever broadened the mandate of the Civil Rights Division — committing it to upholding the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly the most vulnerable among us. And the 1965 Voting Rights Act addressed the limitations of the 1957 Act, by giving the Division groundbreaking systemic authority to address racial discrimination in voting.

The mission of the Civil Rights Division has not wavered. Through its 11 sections, the Division ensures the right to vote and access to justice; it builds mutual trust and respect between communities and law enforcement through advancing constitutional policing; it ensures constitutional and humane conditions in our nation’s prisons and jails; prosecutes hate crimes and cases involving law enforcement misconduct; works to achieve equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities; works to end discrimination in housing, employment and schools; protects individuals from discrimination based on citizenship or immigration status; ensures that all federal agencies enforce civil rights statutes and Executive Orders that prohibit discrimination in federally conducted and assisted programs and activities; and supports and coordinates critical policy work of the department.

Over the more than six decades, the Civil Rights Division has made tremendous and significant progress and strides —

  • In 1964, the Division prosecuted the murder of three civil rights workers in the “Mississippi Burning” case that became a civil rights milestone.

  • In its earliest years, the Division staged an arduous state-by-state campaign to challenge voting discrimination in federal courts, leading to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

  • You’ve worked for decades to combat segregation in schools using Title IV, Title VI and Title IX.

  • The Division brought a landmark lawsuit in 1974, alleging nationwide employment discrimination against the basic steel industry. That suit led to consent decrees and back pay for over two million employees.

  • In 1980, the Division filed — along with the Yonkers branch of the NAACP — the first case alleging systematic housing and school discrimination in the same suit. The case really brought to light concerted efforts to segregate housing for the purpose of segregating schools and ultimately led to Congress’s enactment of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988.

  • Many of you here work every day investigating systemic violations of federal civil rights laws by law enforcement agencies, using the authorities that were given to the Division by Congress in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

  • Between 1995 and 2000, the Division worked to combat religious discrimination and hate crimes through the National Church Arson Task Force, including opening over 900 investigations and prosecuting 300 defendants.

  • You enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act and help ensure that people with disabilities are empowered to determine their own futures, defined by their whole selves.

  • And in recent years, you’ve been working to disrupt and prosecute hate crimes through enforcement of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

  • You fought — and you continue to fight — for same-sex marriage, including through the government’s amicus brief in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees all people “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”

I saw that hard work in action — Obergefell is just one example — when I served as Head of the Civil Rights Division. I remember that my very first meeting in October 2014 was with the team investigating the Ferguson Police Department, some of whose members are here today and have returned to the Justice Department. Events in Ferguson had deeply fractured our nation and renewed a national dialogue over public safety, racial justice and police-community trust.

And the Civil Rights Division immediately recognized the importance of this investigation to the nation. They worked assiduously, the team members, to uncover the full scope of the problems in the small Missouri city. The Ferguson investigation and report made headlines for exposing a system pervaded by racial bias and an undue focus on generating revenue through policing off of the backs of Black and Brown citizens in Ferguson, Missouri. It inspired work across the country to reform abusive and unlawful fines and fees practices and to improve access to justice. Ferguson brought to the national stage a conversation that had been happening in local towns and communities all across the country about police-community trust, about abusive criminal justice practices and more. That case showed the country the work you do every day to enforce civil rights laws and remedy injustice for the most vulnerable among us, in cases big and small, regardless of whether you’re making the front page or not.

You have a lot to be proud of from recent years as well. And Kristen, AAG Clarke, went through some of the most important highlights. This summer, you reached the second highest settlement in department history with a non-bank lender to stop redlining — a decades-old illegal practice in which lenders refuse to provide home loans in communities of color. You obtained convictions against the four police officers involved in the deprivation of George Floyd’s constitutional rights that led to his murder and death. You have vigorously combated hate crimes, as demonstrated in the federal hate crimes prosecution and convictions of the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.

And you continue to ensure that every American has the right to vote freely and without intimidation or harassment — initiating lawsuits to challenge discriminatory laws, filing statements of interest to support our work and the work of our partners across the country, issuing guidance to make clear that jurisdictions must comply with the voting rights laws as they redraw district lines, educating voters on their rights and providing election monitors to help ensure that every eligible voter can cast their ballot.

You have done all this, and so much more. And you should be incredibly proud. All of these accomplishments, and all of this progress is really because of your hard work and tireless dedication to advancing the highest ideals of freedom, justice and equality.

Today we are navigating a landscape of new, and constantly changing, challenges to civil and constitutional rights, sometimes more insidious than those that the Division has confronted in the past. We are also navigating the retrenchment of rights that we thought were untouchable and had been so hard fought. In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, taking away our most effective tool for preventing racially discriminatory election practices from going into effect before elections took place. The Civil Rights Division has doubled down on efforts to protect voting rights with the limited tools that we have available. Earlier this year, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to women throughout the country, taking away the constitutional right to abortion and increasing the urgency of our work, including enforcement of the FACE Act, to ensure continued lawful access to reproductive services.

These problems — new challenges, insidious challenges, the feeling sometimes that we take one step forward and two steps back — are not new. Throughout history, the law has justified what Dr. King called America’s “long night of racial injustice.” Through slavery and Jim Crow and so much more, the law codified exclusion, discrimination and racial terror. But the beauty of this country and the promise of our legal framework is not that we are perfect, but that we never stop working to make our highest ideals real for all Americans. And that is the work of the Civil Rights Division.

Progress is not linear, nor is it not inevitable, and it is always hard fought, and I know that you know that. Setbacks only underscore the importance of the Civil Rights Division and the mission that it was originally charged with and continues to do every day. Through each ebb and flow of civil rights progress, the Division has been unbowed. That is thanks to you, the career men and women who stay focused on the mission regardless of all of the noise in the background. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964: “Freedom can only be achieved where each new generation fights to renew and enlarge its meaning.” As Americans demand broader, more inclusive, definitions of freedom and equality, we are called to reimagine our ideals, and to use every tool that DOJ has available to make those ideals a reality.  

Now, more than ever, we need the work of the Civil Rights Division, to protect the legal framework that supports our principles of democracy and extends the promise of equality and opportunity to every person in this country, including those who have been overlooked, marginalized and without protection for too long.

Laws don’t vindicate rights — people do. And these people don’t fall from the sky. They are you. And we know that this work is never easy, and every inch of progress has been hard won, but we also know, because we see, that progress is possible. And we can make progress when people roll up their sleeves, reject cynicism and work to close the gap between what the law guarantees on paper and what the people’s lived experiences are. So let us never forget that together, we can achieve progress that creates ripples of hope across our country. And let us signal, too, to the world today that in America, the pursuit of a more perfect, more equal and more just union lives on. Thank you so much every day for all you do.

Civil Rights
Updated December 6, 2022