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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing


United States

Thank you, Congresswoman [Terri] Sewell for those kind words; for welcoming me back to Birmingham this afternoon; and for bringing together so many civil rights pioneers and passionate citizens for today’s important observance.

It is an honor to stand with you, Governor [Robert] Bentley, Mayor [William] Bell, Ambassador [Andrew] Young, Reverend [Joseph] Lowery, Reverend [Arthur] Price – and so many other distinguished leaders and invited guests – as we remember the four little angels who were taken from us, 50 years ago today; as we mark the steps forward our country has witnessed in the decades since that terrible tragedy; and as we recommit ourselves – as a nation – to the unfinished work before us, and the ongoing journey – towards equality, opportunity, and justice – that remains our common cause.

As others have said so eloquently, the taking from us of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair marked a seminal and tragic moment in our nation’s history.  On that morning in 1963, these four girls – not yet young women – had come to this historic church – along with Addie Mae’s sister, Sarah, and others who are here with us – to attend a service entitled “The Love that Forgives.”  But just after they began to assemble, the peace of this congregation was shattered, their young lives were taken, and the literal foundation of this church was cracked apart – by an unspeakable act of hatred.

Half a century later, the magnitude of this monstrous crime – and the human and moral costs of other bombings, lynchings, and murders that punctuated not only the Civil Rights Era but the twentieth century more generally – are impossible to calculate and difficult to comprehend.  This afternoon, we come together in part to bear witness to these acts.  And we pay tribute to the brave women, men – and, especially, the innocent children – who throughout history have endured hatred, suffered violence, and rendered tremendous sacrifices in order that future generations might truly be free.

It’s fitting that we commemorate their contributions in a city that’s been both touched by tragedy and defined by progress – where the scars of our past can still be seen and where forward movement is evident.  And it’s important that we mark the anniversaries of this and other milestones – from Selma, to Birmingham, to Tuscaloosa, to the March on Washington – not because we wish to dwell on an imperfect past, but because, like the heroes who once stood in these pews and took to this city’s streets – braving threats, beatings, fire hoses, dogs, bullets, and bombs – we, too, love this great country.  We believe – as they believed – in the enduring promise of the Declaration that marked the birth of our Republic, and the Constitution that set the great American experiment in motion.

We come together today because we’re still striving, as they once did, to realize the dream that Dr. King shared with us 50 years ago last month – on the steps of a memorial to America’s Great Emancipator – when he spoke of an Alabama where children of all races and backgrounds would be able to play together, to learn together, and to grow together.  We recognize that – here and now, despite the remarkable progress that this nation has seen over the past half-century; despite the victories won, and the protections secured, by so many who have gone before us; and despite the fact that I have the great honor of standing before you as our nation’s 82nd Attorney General, serving in the Administration of the first African-American President of the United States – their work has become our work.  And it is far from over.

Every day – in cities and towns across this country – the struggle for equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal justice goes on.  The fight against hatred, against violence – and against the kind of bigotry that once led violent, hate-filled criminals to bomb a house of worship – must continue.  The reality is that hate never leaves us; it is like a lurking virus and must always be identified, confronted and defeated.  And it’s up to every member of every generation to seize opportunities like this one – not merely to reflect upon our past and rejoice in our future, but to protect the advances we’ve inherited and extend the legacy that’s been entrusted to each of us.

This afternoon, we stand, I stand, on the shoulders of untold millions – seemingly ordinary citizens, but all truly extraordinary – who have fought to make real our nation’s founding promise of equal justice.  To these brave individuals – whose names and stories are in too many cases lost to history – we owe, I owe, our deepest thanks.  We pledge – in their honor, and in honor of these four little heroines – that their contributions will always be treasured.  And we affirm that today’s leaders, civil rights advocates, and passionate citizens have broadened our focus to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of Native Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities, and of others who still yearn for opportunity and fair treatment.

In the days after this church was bombed, these were the values, and the high ideals, that drove many residents of Birmingham – and others throughout America – to offer support to the families of those lost or injured.  In total, more than 8,000 people attended a memorial service for the bombing’s young victims.  Strangers from all races, backgrounds, and walks of life – including 800 members of the clergy – came to this city to mourn with the bereaved, to weep for those who had been taken, and to help rebuild the lives that had been forever altered.

Among the mourners at that service was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered a stirring eulogy in which he urged his fellow citizens to “substitute courage for caution” and “work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”  He seized upon a glimmer of hope in a moment of darkness and national heartbreak – declaring that even the most devastating losses can lead to positive change.  He recognized that outpourings of grief and anger must shake this country out of complacency, and give way to a fresh sense of resolve.  And, along with the diverse crowd that stood with him that day – here, in the city of the villainous Bull Connor, the courageous Fred Shuttlesworth, and the extraordinary letter that he himself had written, just five months earlier, from a local jail cell – he reminded the nation that, especially in times of division and despair, we as Americans are united not just by our values, but by our shared aspirations – and our common humanity.  We are still bound to one another, and to the history of this hallowed place, by our ongoing struggle to build a more perfect Union.  A struggle that has defined this country since its earliest days – and which must continue, even now, to push us forward.

In the years since the bombing, countless individuals and groups have worked to bring about sweeping, transformational change.  Millions of voices urged the United States Congress to pass – and President Lyndon Johnson to sign – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination against racial, ethnic, national, and religious minorities; banned unequal applications of voter registration requirements; and barred racial segregation in schools, workplaces, and public accommodations.  Millions called for – and helped to secure – the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which empowered the Justice Department to fight unjust attempts to abridge voting rights and restrict access to the franchise.  This is a fight we will continue.

In these achievements and in so many others, the legacies of these four young girls will always live – though we took them to their rest five decades ago.  And especially this afternoon – as we look toward the future we must build, and keep fighting against the forces that would roll back the advances that we have seen – I want to assure you that, so long as I have the privilege of serving as Attorney General, I will do everything in my power to ensure the vigorous enforcement of these and other essential civil rights protections.

This means using every tool and authority available to the Justice Department to hold accountable those who commit hate crimes, including acts of bias-motivated violence.  It means fighting to ensure that every eligible American can exercise his or her right to vote – unencumbered by discriminatory rules, regulations, and procedures that, intentionally or not, discourage and disenfranchise.  It means challenging unjust laws and expanding workplace protections.  And it means implementing the changes I announced just last month – from modified charging policies, to an updated framework for compassionate release, and an expanded emphasis on alternatives to incarceration – in order to reform our criminal justice system, address unwarranted disparities, and make the system smarter, fairer, and more effective for everyone in this country.

My colleagues and I are determined to invest in proven innovations while safeguarding the achievements that earlier generations worked so hard to secure.  We must not – and will not – stand by and allow the slow unraveling of the progress for which so many have sacrificed so much.  At the same time, we also understand – as you do – that government will never be able to attain these results, or bring about the progress we seek, on its own.

Today, we affirm that it is our duty – and it will always be the responsibility of every American – to confront injustice wherever it is found; to isolate those who act out of hate; and to make real the brighter future, and the more just world, that Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise never had the chance in which to live.  As the father of two young daughters, now almost women, it is heartbreaking for me to look at photographs of these little heroines – as I have many times over the years – and see how innocent, and how full of the hope of youth they were when they were taken from us, and denied the chance to become the remarkable women they might have been.  Our nation lost something precious on that Sunday.  Earlier this summer, I was honored to stand with President Obama in the Oval Office as he paid fitting tribute to their sacrifices by signing a bill that posthumously awarded to them the Congressional Gold Medal.  And I am proud to be here today, among members of the community of faith that knew them best and loved them most, as we firmly resolve – as individuals, as patriots, and as citizens of a great nation – not merely to shed tears, but to keep moving forward together.

Just last month, I joined the President on the National Mall for a ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  I watched as a bell from this church rang out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – near the spot where Dr. King once stood – to remind us of the triumphs and tragedies that define the past we share.  And to call every citizen to remember the parts we must play in writing the next chapter of the great American story.

This afternoon, we pledge that – although our journey may be long, and the road ahead will be anything but easy – we will never stop working to forge the more just society that all of our citizens deserve.  We acknowledge that this is our time, our moment – and our breathtaking opportunity – to make the positive difference we seek.  To strengthen the ties that bind us to one another.  To stand firm in the face of discrimination and hate.  To work for peace in a world too often riven by conflict.  And to stand up and speak out – with one voice, as one people – for the dignity of a promise kept; the honor of a right redeemed; and the values that must continue to drive our ongoing pursuit of a more just and more perfect Union.

Thank you.  May God continue to bless our journey.  May God bless the memories of all those we’ve lost.  May God bless those four little girls.  And may God bless the United States of America.

Updated August 18, 2015