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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the African American History Month Celebration Marking the 50th Anniversary of 1964 Civil Rights Act


United States

Thank you, Chief Judge [Richard] Roberts, for those kind words; for your leadership from the bench; and for your many years of service to our nation – both as a District Court Judge and as a former prosecutor.  It is a pleasure to be with you today.  And it’s an honor to join so many distinguished jurists, devoted public servants, and committed public safety officials in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – and rededicating ourselves to the struggle for equal rights and equal justice that has defined this country since its earliest days.
It’s a special privilege to share the stage with Deputy Marshal [Kirk] Bowden, who, as we’ve just heard, stood on the literal front lines of this fight during a critical moment in the Civil Rights Movement – at a time when young students, law enforcement officials, National Guardsmen, and brave citizens risked their lives to integrate historic institutions across the Deep South.  The courage, and the sacrifices, of people like James Meredith, Deputy Bowden – and others who stood with them on that fateful day in 1962 – helped to transform our nation for the better.  The victories they achieved made countless others possible.  And just a year after Deputy Bowden and his colleagues helped secure the integration of the University of Mississippi – at great cost – other brave law enforcement officials, Justice Department leaders, and federalized National Guard personnel helped a remarkable young woman named Vivian Malone – who would much later become my sister-in-law – to peacefully step past Governor George Wallace, along with another brave young person, James Hood – to become the first African American students to enroll at the University of Alabama.

Like all who are old enough to remember those days, I will never forget the turmoil, and the violence, that characterized the Civil Rights era – as millions of people braved dogs and fire hoses, billy clubs and baseball bats, bullets and bombs, in order to secure the rights which were theirs as Americans.  Thanks to their sacrifices, their leadership, and the relentless optimism of pioneers like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and so many others – the 1960s was a time of great challenge, but also great promise, for our nation.  And among the signature achievements of that tumultuous decade – a decade defined by tragedy as well as hope; by bitter loss as well as remarkable progress – few were as important, or as impactful, as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed this landmark law – 50 years ago this coming July – he recognized it as a watershed moment.  Although its adoption did not put the issue of equal justice to rest – or settle the cause of civil rights, once and for all – it marked an inflection point in our history.  It gave those who sought fair treatment a renewed sense of hope.  And it reaffirmed their determination to keep fighting for the brighter future that all of our citizens deserved.
In the years that followed, this struggle – to secure what President Johnson once called the “dignity of man and the destiny of democracy” – would lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a range of other reforms, both large and small.  Together, these changes altered the course of the 20th century.  And they led our nation’s Department of Justice to take an active role in defending the civil rights to which everyone in this country is entitled – work that remains among our top priorities today.
In many ways, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 continues to stand at the heart of our ongoing efforts – providing critical protections against discrimination and disenfranchisement for members of every sector of society.  But it’s far from the only tool we have for advancing the cause of justice under law; for ensuring both fairness and rigor in all of our enforcement activities; and for securing the basic promise of equality that was codified in our founding documents – and must drive our ongoing efforts to make this fundamental truth not only “self-evident,” but protected by the law.

We can be proud of all that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, of which Chief Judge Roberts was once a member, has done to advance this struggle in recent years.  Since 2009, the Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases than at any other time in our history, including record numbers of police misconduct and human trafficking cases.  Under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009, we are improving our ability to hold accountable those who commit bias-motivated acts of violence.  We’re working, under the Defending Childhood Initiative and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, to combat bullying and harassment, to protect America’s young people from violence and abuse, and to partner with allies like the Department of Education to disrupt the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  And in a variety of ways – from our neighborhoods and workplaces, to our housing and lending markets; from our boardrooms to our border areas; from our military bases to our voting booths – my colleagues and I are using every resource at our disposal and every tool within our reach to stand against all forms of discrimination.

This means taking appropriately aggressive action to enforce key civil rights protections and, where necessary, to call for additional legislative remedies.  But it also means standing vigilant against those who would roll back the progress of the last half-century.  Particularly since last June, when a narrowly split but deeply divided Supreme Court invalidated a critical part of the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Division has been focused on reallocating resources to enforce all federal voting protections that remain on the books.  The Justice Department has filed suit to challenge voting restrictions in Texas and North Carolina.  And I am personally committed to working with Congressional leaders from both parties to refine, and to strengthen, new voting rights legislation that’s being debated on Capitol Hill.

Fortunately, all of this is only the beginning.  And if today’s leaders – and especially today’s lawyers – hope to build on the legacy of those who made the Civil Rights Act and other extraordinary advancements possible, I believe we must do much more than simply prevent the unraveling of the progress with which prior generations have entrusted us.  Moving forward, we must continue to expand the fight for civil rights and equal justice – by seeking new ways to address unwarranted disparities, to combat disenfranchisement, and to address the evolving threats of our time.  And we must begin by ensuring that America has a criminal justice system that’s worthy of its highest ideals; that those who pay their debts to society have fair opportunities to become productive, law-abiding citizens; and that 21st century criminal justice challenges can be met with 21st century solutions.

Last August – in a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco – I announced a new “Smart on Crime” initiative that’s dedicated to these goals, and is already allowing us to take meaningful steps forward.  Under this initiative, I mandated an important change to the Justice Department’s charging policies to ensure that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal, drug-related crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals.  My colleagues and I are increasing our emphasis on proven diversion programs – such as drug rehabilitation and community service initiatives – that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.  And we are investing in data-driven reentry strategies – and evaluating the unnecessary collateral consequences imposed by certain convictions – to enable formerly incarcerated individuals to stay on the right path and out of the criminal justice system.

Three weeks ago, at Georgetown University Law Center, I called upon state leaders and other elected officials across the country to take another important step in this regard – by restoring voting rights to those who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.  We’ve seen over the years that the permanent disenfranchisement of these individuals is unwise and unjust.  We know that it is also counterproductive, undermining the reentry process and perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated people.  The reality is that felony disenfranchisement policies are not only extremely outdated – they echo troubling policies that were enacted more than a century ago, during a time of post-Civil War repression.  And they continue to have a disproportionate impact on America’s communities of color.

Clearly, it’s well past time for us to declare – together – that the free exercise of our fundamental rights must never be subject to the lingering effects of flawed or unjust policies.  Even more broadly, it’s time to affirm – once and for all – that the basic promise of our justice system must never hinge on the quality of, or access to, legal representation for those who need it.

That’s why I believe that, as every jurist and legal professional in this room knows all too well, it is not just unacceptable – it is shameful – that half a century after the Supreme Court declared, in Gideon v. Wainwright, that every person charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney – far too many Americans still struggle to gain access to the legal assistance they need.

It is shameful that, in far too many places, extraordinarily dedicated public defenders face crushing caseloads without the support they need to do their jobs.

And it’s shameful that – while the federal public defender system has consistently served as a model for success – a recent study shows that only 21 percent of reporting state systems and just over a quarter of county-based offices have enough attorneys to meet caseload guidelines.

Today’s Justice Department is committed to doing everything in our power to help address this indigent defense crisis – including through the Access to Justice initiative I launched in 2010 to increase access to counsel and legal assistance, and to improve the justice delivery systems that serve people who are unable to afford lawyers.  In recent years, our ability to offer support to state and local providers has been constrained by sequestration and other budget shortfalls that have necessitated deep cuts at every level of government.  But the bipartisan funding agreement that President Obama signed into law – just last month – will finally restore the Department’s overall funding to pre-sequestration levels.  And I am pleased to report today that the President’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2015 will address the need for additional resources for indigent defense programs throughout America – which must remain a top priority even, and especially, when budgets are tight.

I call upon state and local leaders to step forward and do their part in ensuring that we can live up to the full promise of Gideon.  And I urge legal professionals across the country to do everything they can do help guarantee that adequate legal representation is seen not as a luxury for those who can afford it – but as a basic American right.

After all, neither the Department I lead, nor the Administration in which I am privileged to serve, will be able to bring about this and the other changes we seek on our own.  Just as we have done throughout our history, this nation will continue to rely on passionate citizens to drive us forward.  And we will depend upon leaders like all of you to use your unique skills, training, and experience – at the highest levels of our legal system – to bring our country closer to the values of our forebears and the promise of our founding.

Five decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we can reflect with pride on the progress that this critical measure, and so many others, have made possible over many years of struggle and sacrifice.  But even the most sweeping legislation cannot, by itself, wash away the deeply ingrained disparities that millions of Americans continue to face.  Despite all that’s been achieved, a great deal of work remains before us.  We cannot yet be satisfied.  We cannot afford to become complacent.  And we must seize this opportunity to expand on the legacy of inclusion, equality, and justice we’ve inherited.

Although much remains to be done, I am confident that, with your continued leadership, with your steadfast support – and with the courage and determination that has always defined the very best of America’s legal community – we will forge the stronger, more just, and more accepting society that we, and our fellow citizens, deserve.  I am proud to count you as colleagues, and as partners, in this important effort.  And I thank you, once again, for the chance to discuss this work with you today; for your dedication to the cause of justice that remains our common pursuit; and for your commitment to honoring our past by building the brighter future we seek.

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016