Skip to main content

Attorney General Eric Holder Addresses the Delta Sigma Theta National Convention Social Action Luncheon


United States

Thank you, Secretary [Alexis] Herman, for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a privilege to join you, President [Cynthia] Butler-McIntyre, National Social Action Co-Chair [Patricia] Watkins Lattimore, National First Vice President [Paulette] Walker, and every member of your Executive Committee and Executive Board – in celebrating Delta Sigma Theta’s centennial year here in our nation’s capital – not far from the campus where this sorority was founded.  But it’s an even greater privilege to be the husband of a distinguished Delta – Dr. Sharon Malone.  Thank you all for inviting me to take part in your 51st Annual Convention, as we come together to congratulate this year’s award recipients, to reflect on a century of engagement and empowerment – and to strengthen the robust tradition of service, scholarship, and principled social action that has always defined this remarkable sisterhood.

Of course, as this celebration unfolds, we are also mindful of the pain felt by our nation surrounding the tragic, unnecessary shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida last year – and the state trial that reached its conclusion over the weekend.  As parents, as engaged citizens, and as leaders who stand vigilant against violence in communities across the country, the Deltas are deeply, and rightly, concerned about this case.  The Justice Department shares your concern – I share your concern – and, as we first acknowledged last spring, we have opened an investigation into the matter.

Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.  We must not – as we have too often in the past – let this opportunity pass.   I hope that we will approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most, Trayvon’s parents, have demonstrated throughout the last year – and especially over the past few days.  They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure – and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive.  Even as we embrace their example and hold them in our prayers, we must not forego this opportunity to better understand one another and to make better this nation we cherish.

Moreover, I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law.  We are committed to standing with the people of Sanford, with the individuals and families affected by this incident, and with our state and local partners in order to alleviate tensions, address community concerns, and promote healing.  We are determined to meet division and confusion with understanding and compassion – and also with truth.  We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents.  And we will never stop working to ensure that – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community – justice must be done.

This is an aim we’re proud to share with everyone in this room, and with all who have contributed to the culture of excellence that has been this organization’s hallmark for the last century.  In the decades since Delta Sigma Theta was founded – in 1913, by 22 ambitious Howard University students – this sorority has grown into the single largest organization of African-American women in the country, comprised of more than 200,000 members in over 900 chapters across the globe.  By standing up and speaking out for the most vulnerable members of society; by fighting against discrimination based on race or gender; and by providing a network of support for generations of leaders and aspiring public servants – you have transformed countless lives and improved communities from coast to coast.  By summoning the strength, and the faith, necessary to overcome extraordinary obstacles, you’ve led efforts to challenge – and overturn – an unjust status quo.  And you’ve established a legacy of audacious action that has done nothing less than re-shape the world in which we live.

This legacy is celebrated in the lives of historic leaders – and proud Deltas – like Myrlie Evers-Williams; Representative Marcia Fudge, who we’re honored to have with us today; Brigadier General Hazel Johnson Brown – the first African American woman to become a general in the United States Army; and Representative Shirley Chisolm – the first black woman to be elected to Congress or to run for President of the United States as a major party candidate.  This legacy has been strengthened by generations of extraordinarily talented women who have served – and led – at the highest levels of both the public and private sectors.  And it has been extended by pioneers like my late sister-in-law, Viviane Malone, who – many years ago – braved difficulty and danger in order to become the first black student to graduate from the University of Alabama.

Long before I married her sister, Vivian was a student at Alabama A&M University. She found a community of friendship and fellowship there among the members of Delta Sigma Theta – a group that shared not only her values, but her deep and abiding faith in America’s founding ideals.
When Vivian decided to pursue a program of study that wasn’t offered at Alabama A&M, she applied to transfer to the University of Alabama, in the state where generations of her family had lived for many years – and was turned away solely because of her race.  But, like thousands of her Delta sisters – both before and since – she refused to take “no” for an answer.  Along with another brave young student named James Hood, she declined to sit back and wait to be given the rights which were hers as an American citizen.  She knew that patience was not a virtue.

Eventually – with the support of the courts, the assistance of the Justice Department, and the protection of the National Guard – Vivian tore down the institutional barriers that stood in her way.  And exactly 50 years ago last month – with Justice Department officials at her sides, and the eyes of the nation upon her – she stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama.

Since that moment – thanks to the work of groups like this one, and the dedication of passionate advocates like all of you – our nation has experienced remarkable, once-unimaginable progress.  We’ve traveled a long way down the road to equality and opportunity.  But, as we have seen in Sanford, our journey is not yet complete, and our work is far from over.

In addition to the University of Alabama’s integration, last month also marked the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act – a landmark measure that was signed into law by President John Kennedy to address wage discrimination, ensure protections for women in every sector of the workforce, and spur economic and social change.  It’s no coincidence that one of the prominent advocates for this important law – Dorothy Height – was also a proud Delta who served as your 10th National President.

Thanks to her leadership – and the tireless efforts of millions who organized and rallied their fellow citizens to the cause of equality – we’ve made great strides in closing the “pay gap” since this law was enacted.  But, again, we still have a long way to go.  Even though more women are attending college today than ever before – and young women are even more likely than young men to earn a degree – they hold significantly fewer leadership positions in the workplace. Over the last few years, the number of men and women in the workforce has become almost equal – yet women remain at greater risk of falling into poverty.  Studies have shown that they earn an average of just 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.  African American and Hispanic women earn even less.  And what’s known as “occupational segregation” still relegates more than half of all women in the modern workforce to low-wage jobs in the sales, service, and office sectors.

This is why I have always been determined – not only as our nation’s Attorney General, but as a husband and father – to fight for equality, for opportunity, and for freedom from sex-based discrimination.  I am committed, just as you are committed, to keep building on the progress that Vivian and so many sisters, mothers, daughters and wives have fought and sacrificed to secure.  I share your resolve to stand firmly against those who would turn back the clock when it comes to issues of employment – and also with regard  to issues of women’s health.  And I will not rest until I’ve done everything in my power to ensure that my daughters – and yours – have the same opportunities, and the same choices, that my son has.

As President Obama and other Administration leaders have made clear, sex-based discrimination isn’t just unfair – it’s wrong.  It’s harmful to our economy as a whole. And it’s unworthy of the great nation, and the just society, that leaders like you and your predecessors have helped to build.

That’s why the very first bill that the President signed into law was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  It’s why the Administration has made an historic commitment to addressing wage disparities through the National Equal Pay Task Force – which we launched in 2010, and which the Justice Department is honored to help lead.  And it’s why the President’s health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, is designed to improve women’s economic security in addition to their health – by requiring most insurance plans to offer important preventive care services – such as cervical cancer screenings, domestic violence counseling, and contraception – without imposing additional costs.

Over the last two years alone, as a result of this landmark law, more than 70 million Americans with private insurance have gained access to these essential services.  Three million young people – including many college students – have been allowed to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until they turn 26.  And the Justice Department has taken additional action – under another important law guaranteeing the right to reproductive health care – to ensure that all women can access these and other important services, as needed, free from threats, force, or physical obstruction.

Fortunately, this is only the beginning.  Beyond these efforts, my colleagues and I have also made a firm commitment to empowering women to prevent and reduce other kinds of threats and harassment. Thanks to the leadership of the Department’s Office on Violence Against Women – or OVW – we’re combating all forms of gender-based violence, raising awareness about stalking and sexual assault, and bringing help and healing to the survivors of these devastating crimes – particularly on college campuses.

As you know, the importance of this work would be difficult to overstate.  Across the country, nearly one in five undergraduate women have reported experiencing sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault, since entering college. By the time a woman reaches her senior year, that number is closer to one in four.  Eighty percent of female rape victims experienced their first rape before the age of 25.  And more than 60 percent of college rapists are repeat offenders.

Put simply, this is nothing less than a crisis.  As a prosecutor and former judge, I’ve seen this firsthand.  Like some of you, I have witnessed the devastating impact that sexual violence can have on victims. And I’m pleased to report that today’s Justice Department is responding to these shocking statistics, and heartbreaking stories, by fighting back aggressively – in bold, innovative, and collaborative ways.

Thanks to OVW’s innovative Campus Program, we’re taking action to bolster victim services nationwide, to strengthen investigative strategies, and to support proven approaches for helping those affected by sexual assault. We’re offering grant funding to 150 institutions of higher learning to expand programs that work.  And we’re collaborating with allies like the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to leverage scarce resources, evaluate promising practices, and share information as never before.  

And, in our comprehensive work to ensure civil rights protections, we’re looking far beyond college campuses and workplaces – to America’s immigrant communities and border areas; our military bases and places of worship; and especially our government institutions and voting booths – in order to keep extending the legacy of service that has distinguished this sorority since its earliest days.

Just weeks after this organization was born, the 22 founders of Delta Sigma Theta carried out their first public act – and became the only African American women’s organization to participate in a historic march for women’s suffrage right here in our nation’s capital.  From the beginning, they aligned themselves with a righteous cause that has sparked a century-long commitment to social action.

This is a cause that the Justice Department has not only embraced, but championed – particularly over the last four and a half years. Unfortunately, last month’s flawed Supreme Court decision – invalidating a key part of the Voting Rights Act – dealt a significant blow to our efforts to combat discrimination at the ballot box.  By holding that an important provision of this landmark law is unconstitutional, the Court struck down a measure that has stood for nearly five decades as a cornerstone of American civil rights law and that had earned overwhelming bi-partisan support. 
As we move past this deeply disappointing decision, Congress needs to act to make sure every American has equal access to the polls.  The Justice Department is eager to work with Congressional leaders of both parties, and with concerned citizens like you, to craft new legislation to fill the void left by the Court’s ruling and address voting rights discrimination.  This is not a partisan issue. It is an issue about the most fundamental of all rights – the right to vote.  It is about how we define our democracy.

In the meantime, my colleagues and I will continue to stand vigilant against voter discrimination wherever it is found – using all of the enforcement tools that remain available to us. Even more importantly, we’ll keep relying on people throughout the nation to defend their rights by exercising them; by going to the ballot box on Election Day; and by voting for their preferred candidates of either party.

This is our solemn duty – as advocates for fairness, civil rights, and equality.  It is our sacred responsibility as American citizens. And it must always be our common cause – as heirs to the legacies of Dorothy Height, Vivian Malone, and millions of other Deltas who, over the last century, have spoken out for voting rights and civil liberties; demanded better wages and working conditions; and fought for equal treatment and equal justice.

Today, our steps forward must be guided by this same sense of responsibility – and spirit of public service.  As a new generation – of students, leaders, and Deltas – takes up this struggle, and moves to confront the challenges of our time, we must renew our commitment to learning from our shared history. We must continue to honor the heroines – and heed the lessons – of our past.  And we must rise above the injustices and inequities that persist into the present day.

This won’t always be easy.  But if what’s past is truly prologue – then I believe there’s good reason for confidence in where the Deltas in this room – including my niece Amanda – will lead us.
No matter how you move forward from here – as you seek to make a difference, and strive to make your mark – I urge you to find ways to serve your communities and improve the lives of your fellow citizens.  Never forget that you are among our nation’s most qualified – and most passionate – leaders, public servants, and civil rights advocates.  And never doubt that every member of Delta Sigma Theta has what it takes to bring about sweeping, positive change, and to have an enduring impact on the world we share – and the future we seek. 

As I look around this crowd today, I’m certain that – if you continue to hold fast to the values, the ideals, and the extraordinary history, that have been entrusted to you – then yours will be a future defined by continued progress, and limitless possibilities.

I thank you, once again, for the chance to be with you today. I wish you all a most productive, and inspiring, Convention.  And I urge you, in all that you do, to stay true to what it means to be a Delta.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015