Remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Congressman [John] Lewis. I’m humbled by your kind words. And I continue to be inspired by the example of leadership and service that you provide for us all.
Nearly half a century ago, during one of the most painful, and most shameful, chapters in our nation’s history, your courage and restraint in the face of life-threatening violence brought out the best in a generation. And on the day that Dr. King led hundreds of thousands of Americans in a march on Washington and shared his Dream with the world, your words established the creed that guided those devoted to the cause of Justice and the promise of equality – the creed that sustains us to this day.
In the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, standing with Dr. King, you declared that, "Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all."
Those words were true in 1963. They remain true today.
It is this truth that brings us together here. It’s an honor to be part of these days of important reflection and reevaluation. I’m grateful to join you all in commemorating SNCC’s 50th anniversary and in celebrating the progress that so many of you here, in this very church, helped to achieve.
Today, we also celebrate the life and mourn the loss of Dr. Benjamin Hooks, one of our nation’s great civil rights leaders. Dr. Hooks served our country in many ways -- as a pastor, a judge, a lawyer, an activist, a businessman and a veteran. His extraordinary commitment to the cause of equal justice helped to open the doors of opportunity to the many who have followed in his footsteps, and his visionary leadership helped to steer the NAACP through one of its most challenging eras.
As we remember and honor Dr. Hooks’s achievements and contributions, our thoughts and prayers are with the Hooks family. Although Dr. Hooks is sorely missed, there is much to celebrate in the life he lived, in the example he set, and in the inspiration his memory will continue to provide us. I have no doubt that Dr. Hooks is smiling down on us, thrilled to see the large crowd gathered here.
Today, you are so many. But it is worth pausing to remember that half a century ago – in the beginning – there were only a few. Four young men – Franklin McCain, David Richmond, Joseph McNeil and Ezell Blair, Jr. – joined together, bound by a shared hope and by a bold, untested idea. And on Feb. 1, 1960, at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, they put their idea into action.
The next day, a picture of these young men, defiantly sitting in "white only" stools, appeared on the cover of the Greensboro Record, above a prophetic three-word caption that said it all: "Students Begin Movement."
By the end of the day, those four students had been joined by dozens more – and, before long, by tens of thousands more. This flicker of hope, first sparked by a small circle of students on North Carolina A&T’s campus, quickly spread to Durham and Chapel-Hill, to Winston-Salem and Concord, to Raleigh, and – soon – to every state across the South. Because of SNCC, because of you, what began in Greensboro as a policy of protest became, all across America, a philosophy of progress and a too long delayed quest for justice and equality.
It was on this very day – April 17th – exactly fifty years ago, that this philosophy became the foundation of a movement that would forever change the course of our country. On that day, SNCC’s founders adopted a strategy of nonviolent confrontation, not merely as a tactic for advancing civil rights, but as an end unto itself. "By appealing to conscience and standing on the moral nature of human existence," they wrote in their mission statement, "nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities."
And that, of course, is exactly what happened. As their efforts expanded – from sit-ins to marches, from freedom rides to freedom ballots – these young leaders created a legacy of non-violence that has been emulated by every successful social movement in America since. And as they met success, our society – and our laws – moved closer to fulfilling their promise of equal justice for all.
Many of you know this history far better than I can recount it. You lived it. You were there, a part of those early days. Some of you risked your lives to achieve the enduring progress we now celebrate. You were, as the Committee’s Executive Secretary James Forman once put it, "a band of sisters and brothers – a circle of trust – with a belief in people and in their power to change their lives."
I mention this history because there is, quite simply, no better guide as we set our course for the days ahead. For well over two centuries now, the American people have been striving to fulfill the promise of our justice system. I have great faith in this system. It is an essential aspect of our democracy’s foundation. But I also realize that, unfortunately, our legal system hasn’t always reflected our highest ideals.
Before SNCC helped to end segregation, our legal system undermined the very rights and privileges that it should have been protecting. Since those dark days, we’ve made great progress. And, while we must make peace with this past, we must never forget or dismiss it. Looking back on this history provides our best chance for moving forward. It also helps us to understand the persistent suspicion – held by some – that, for example, the criminal justice system does not treat African-Americans or other people of color fairly. And this history illuminates some of the ways in which our old legal system continues to affect the present conditions in some of our nation’s most vulnerable African-American communities. Indeed, this history is a powerful reminder of the persistent effects of injustice and the consequences of civil rights violations.
These consequences are, perhaps, most evident when examining the current state of our economy. Over the last two years, we have faced the most serious financial crises in generations. Certainly, the recession affected Americans of every racial and ethnic group, class, and age – closing off both blue- and white-collar job prospects. However, the consequences for African-American communities have been far more severe than the national averages. Even today, as our nation emerges from the recession, joblessness for young black men, those between the ages of 16 and 24, has reached proportions not seen since the Great Depression. And young black women of the same age now have an unemployment rate of more that 26 percent, 11 points higher than the unemployment rate for all 16-to-24-year-old women.
These economic disparities will have long-term consequences for all Americans. And they should concern each of us. After all we’ve worked to achieve, we must not allow this next generation to become the first generation in decades not to keep pace with or exceed their parents' standard of living.
But such disparities, as you know, are not limited to financial matters. A little more than a month ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released a study that found African-American and Latino men are more likely to receive longer prison sentences than their white counterparts – a reality aggravated by the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity that Congress is, fortunately, now taking steps to reduce. And, just this past week, a U.S. District court judge – at the urging of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – ordered the Walthall County School District in Tylertown, Mississippi – just miles from where SNCC planted the seeds of its freedom ballots campaign in 1961 – to comply with an order from nearly four decades ago to halt practices that were encouraging the re-segregation of their schools.
Today’s challenges remind us that we have much more to do, despite the progress we’ve made in creating a more equal nation. It may be tempting – when you look at the diversity of people walking the halls of Congress or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equal justice has been achieved for all Americans. We have made tremendous progress as a nation. But it will take more than the election of the first African-American President to fully secure the promise of equality for every American. And it will certainly take more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General to ensure that the American justice system reflects the values and principles enshrined in our nation’s founding documents.
We at the Justice Department have recommitted ourselves to this work. We’re strengthening civil rights protections in employment, housing, voting, and sentencing, and we’ve launched a new initiative aimed at expanding access to justice.
I believe that every American, and certainly every one in this church, can play a role in advancing this work – in rekindling the spirit of justice that began at luncheon counters in April 1960 and electrified the nation. I am, of course, speaking in particular to the many college students gathered here today. We are counting on you to build on SNCC’s achievements and to use the opportunities and gifts you’ve been provided to help others realize their potential, and to further advance the cause of justice, and to ensure that our nation’s promise of equal opportunity is, finally, fulfilled.
Your presence here today gives me great hope for our future. Time after time, the American people – often at the insistence of our nation’s young people – have proven that we will not be deterred by our nation’s painful past. Instead, we must continue to apply the lessons we have learned from history to hasten our work and to open the doors of opportunity for all.
On this historic day, as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of SNCC’s beginnings, I can’t help but be optimistic. And I can’t help but recall Dr. King’s prophetic reminder that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." I believe that Dr. King was right, in part because of the progress I’ve witnessed during my own lifetime and the incredible healing I’ve seen. As a child in New York, I cheered on the Brooklyn Dodgers and their star second baseman, Jackie Robinson. As a boy, I watched Vivian Malone – a woman who later became my sister-in-law – step past George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. As a teenager, I felt the scope of my own dreams expand as I saw Thurgood Marshall take his historic place on our nation’s highest court. As a man, I’ve had the privilege to serve our nation’s first African-American President. And I now have the indescribable honor of leading our nation’s Justice Department as the first African-American Attorney General.
This progress would not have, and could not have, occurred without SNCC’s work. Let me be very clear: there is a direct line, a direct line, from that lunch counter to the Oval Office and to the fifth floor of the United States Department of Justice where the Attorney General sits. Today, as I stand before leaders who I’ve admired all my life, I fully understand that I also stand on your shoulders. So I am here to simply say "thank you" as much as anything. The path I’ve been so blessed to travel was blazed by your sacrifice, by your courage, by your conviction and most of all- by your action. What seems almost easy looking back at old newsreel coverage from fifty years ago was, I know, unimaginably difficult and frightening. Despite this, SNCC and the movement it inspired persevered and succeeded.
Now, together, we must continue moving forward on this long road toward justice and equality. Although our progress may still seem slow and halting at times, each of us has the power, and obligation, to make sure that our journey continues. Together, we can build a more inclusive, more just, and more perfect union. And we must. As John Lewis said best, "our minds, souls, and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all."
To that, I say, simply, "Amen."