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Attorney General Eric Holder Delivers Remarks at the My Brother's Keeper Summit Closing Session


Memphis, TN
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Mayor [A.C.] Wharton – and thank you all for being here today.  It’s a privilege to join you in convening this important summit – to discuss and advance the groundbreaking My Brother’s Keeper initiative.  And it’s a particular pleasure to do so here in the great city of Memphis – a city whose history is bound up in the work we gather to continue, and whose future will be written by the leaders, and especially the young people, in this crowd. 

Over the centuries, Memphis has undergone a remarkable series of transformations – from a hub in the immoral slave trade, helping to fuel a 19th-century economy founded on oppression and built on the backs of those our nation held in chains; to a diverse, inclusive, and thriving urban center – known for its legendary music; vibrant, wonderful culture – and even better barbecue.

The Memphis of today is in some ways barely recognizable as the city it was just a few short decades ago – near the height of the Civil Rights Movement – when the struggle for equality played out in the streets and in national headlines.  Yet the scars of this struggle, and the lingering impacts of legal and institutional discrimination, remain all around us.  Over the years, the changes we’ve seen in Memphis have mirrored the ones that have swept across the nation – tearing down barriers and affirming the equality of all men and women.  And all of this progress has come thanks to the power of engaged citizens like you, the promise of America’s founding documents, and the passion of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Like so many cities across the American South – from Selma, to Greensboro, to Birmingham; from Tuscaloosa, to Atlanta, to Meridian – Memphis is home to a number of historic sites of great importance to the Civil Rights Era.  It was here, in 1968, that sanitation workers went on strike to call for higher wages – and to protest discrimination and dangerous working conditions.  It was here, at the Mason Temple not far from where we now stand, that Dr. King famously declared that “[s]omething is happening in Memphis; something is happening with our world.”  It was in that very same speech that he told us he had been to the mountaintop and had seen the Promised Land.  And it was here, of course – the very next day, at the Lorraine Motel that’s now a museum to the cause he championed, and the work we all must continue – that Dr. King was taken from us, far before his time.

In the decades since then, this city – and our nation – have taken extraordinary steps forward along the road to civil rights and equal justice.  Let me be very clear: to discount this progress would be a grave disservice to those who peacefully marched, and organized, and sacrificed so much to make it possible.  Yet it’s equally true, as we gather today, that the work that these generations have left to us – of forging a more inclusive future and building a more perfect Union – is far from over.  A great deal remains to be done.  And as we speak – once again – something is happening in Memphis.  Something is happening with our world.

In recent months, with the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, in New York City, we’ve seen the beginning of important national reflection and conversation.  These incidents have brought long-simmering divides to the surface.  They have sparked widespread public demonstrations.  And they have focused a spotlight on the rifts that can develop between police officials and the citizens they are entrusted to serve and protect.

None of these concerns are limited to any one city, state, or geographic region.  They are American issues that are truly national in scope.  They demand a constructive response from our entire country.  And, at their core, they are far larger than just the police and the community – implicating concerns about the fairness of our justice system as a whole, and the persistent opportunity gaps faced by far too many people throughout the nation – and by boys and young men of color in particular.

I know you heard from President Obama, via video message, earlier today.  And I want to join him in expressing my gratitude – and admiration – for all that Memphis has done to assume a mantle of leadership befitting your unique history.  Since the President launched his My Brother’s Keeper initiative, in February – to address opportunity gaps and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential – the Obama Administration has been relying on leaders like you to help make a difference.  We have been joining with cities and towns, businesses, and foundations that are taking steps to connect young people to mentoring, support networks, and the skills they need to find a good job – or go to college – and work their way into the middle class.  And we’ve been encouraged by the great work that you’re doing – under Mayor Wharton’s leadership – to improve education, employment, healthcare, and justice.  To help advance the work of our groundbreaking Defending Childhood Initiative and National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention.  To expand mentoring and leverage new partnerships to increase access to post-secondary education.  And to take up the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge – an important call for communities to implement coherent cradle-to-college-and-career strategies for improving the life outcomes of all young people – regardless of who they are, where they come from, or the circumstances into which they are born.

All of this is vital, commendable, and extremely promising work.  It has the potential to make a real difference in the lives, and the futures, of countless Americans.  And as we gather this afternoon to advance it, to address concerns raised by peaceful protesters, and to rebuild trust where it has been eroded – I believe we also need to broaden both our focus and our impact.  Make no mistake: out of the tragedies of the past few months and weeks comes an opportunity for this great nation that we must not – as we have too often in the past – squander.  Our needed conversation must result in concrete action.

Last August, with these goals in mind, I launched a new “Smart on Crime” initiative to help strengthen communities, to improve public safety, and to make America’s criminal justice system more effective – and more equitable.  Our actions under this initiative are born of the crucial recognition that growing both tougher and smarter on crime means investing in innovations; striving for more just and more equal outcomes; and rejecting any policy or practice that has the potential to undermine sound law enforcement – or erode the sense of trust that must always exist between police officials and the citizens they serve.

As the My Brother’s Keeper Task Force reported to the President last May – months before events in Ferguson captured headlines – we need to do more to strengthen the relationships between law enforcement and their communities.  America’s law enforcement leaders must ensure that every community can see that we are firmly committed to the impartial and aggressive enforcement of our laws – and the unbiased protection of everyone in this country.  Bonds that have been broken must be restored.  And bonds that never existed must now be created – because this is the fundamental promise that lies at the core of who we are, what we do, and what so many brave law enforcement officers sacrifice so much, every day, to achieve.

This is why I’ve been traveling around the country, in recent days and over the coming weeks and months, to meet with law enforcement, faith, and community leaders to strengthen our dialogue about cooperation and mutual trust.  I’m pleased to note that we’re holding the latest in this series of meetings later today, here in Memphis.  And I want to emphasize that our shared dedication to integrity, equal justice, and the highest standards of fair and effective policing has always been at the heart of the Justice Department’s efforts in every sector – and in every city and town – that our work touches.

This is the dedication that drove me, shortly after taking office as Attorney General, to order an extensive review of the Justice Department’s Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies – a directive that was issued by the previous Administration in 2003.  This guidance expressly prohibited federal agents from using race as a factor in their investigations unless they encountered specific, credible information that made race relevant to a particular case.  But it did not prohibit the consideration of factors such as national origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.  And it broadly exempted investigations and operations that implicated America’s national security – an unduly expansive exemption that was the subject of legitimate criticism.

As Attorney General, I have repeatedly made clear that racial profiling by law enforcement is not only wrong, it is misguided and ineffective – because it can mistakenly focus investigative efforts, waste precious resources, and, ultimately, undermine the public trust.  Like some of you, this is something I experienced, as a younger man, in a deeply personal way.  I will never forget the frustration I felt at being pulled over twice, and my car searched, on the New Jersey Turnpike, even though I’m sure I wasn’t speeding.  Or the humiliation of being stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie – at night, in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. – even though I was a federal prosecutor at the time.

These experiences bear out what research has consistently found: that, when those who come into contact with law enforcement feel that they are treated fairly, and that official actions are both appropriate and warranted, they are more likely to accept decisions by the authorities.  They are more likely to obey the law.  And they’re more likely to cooperate with law enforcement in the future – even if they disagree with specific outcomes.  This is especially true in communities where crime challenges are at their most acute – and where interactions with police officials are too often characterized by discord and distress.  And that’s why it is incumbent upon Justice Department leaders and others in law enforcement at every level to help bridge this divide – because trust in the system and compliance with the law must begin not with the fear of arrest, or even the threat of incarceration, but with respect for the institutions that guide our democracy – and for the laws, policies, and courageous men and women who keep us safe.

Over the past five years, we scrupulously reviewed the 2003 Guidance with an eye toward ensuring that all federal agents can fulfill their core law enforcement, public safety, and national security responsibilities with maximum legitimacy, accountability, and transparency.  I am here to report that this review has reached its conclusion.  And we have determined that – although the department’s 2003 Use of Race Guidance prohibited racial profiling in a broad sense – it is time for us to do even more.

It’s time to expand upon the safeguards that are currently in place.  It’s time to institute new protections for those who come into contact with federal authorities.  And it’s time to bring enhanced training, oversight, and accountability to this process – so that anyone responsible for isolated incidents of profiling can be held responsible, and singular acts of discrimination do not tarnish the exemplary work that’s performed by the overwhelming majority of America’s federal law enforcement officials each and every day.

Particularly in light of the recent incidents we’ve seen at the local level – and the widespread concerns, about trust in the criminal justice process, that so many have raised throughout the nation – it’s imperative that we take every possible action to ensure strong and sound policing practices.  We must instill the absolute highest standards of professionalism and integrity.  And that’s why – yesterday – I announced new Guidance that will supersede the directive issued in 2003, and will apply to all federal law enforcement agents conducting law enforcement activities, including when those activities relate to national security and intelligence.

This new Guidance will expand prohibited profiling criteria by explicitly banning profiling based not only on race – but also, for the very first time, on gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity.  It will apply the same uniform standard to all investigations, national security operations, and intelligence activities conducted by federal law enforcement.  It will govern the actions of every single FBI, DEA, and ATF agent; every U.S. Marshal, and every other federal law enforcement agent conducting law enforcement activities, including state and local law enforcement officers assigned to federal task forces.  And it will include training, oversight, and accountability measures to ensure that all federal law enforcement activities and operations reflect our commitment to keeping the nation safe while upholding our most sacred values and the rights of all communities and individuals.

This constitutes a major and important step forward to ensure effective policing by federal authorities throughout the nation.  It will institutionalize clear and critical strategies that are already in place in the field – and are currently enabling us to protect the safety of our nation and maintain the trust of our citizens.  And it codifies positive policies and practices that are now being observed by the FBI, ATF, DEA, and U.S. Marshals Service.

Today, I urge state and local law enforcement agencies to look to this new federal guidance as a model – and to develop their own rigorous policies along similar lines.  This will promote sound law enforcement techniques.  It will help to move us toward the ultimate goal of ending racial profiling, once and for all.  And it will enable every American to have greater confidence in the mechanisms in place to hold their government accountable; to work in concert with law enforcement to secure their communities; and to make public safety not only an obligation for those who have sworn to serve – but a promise that’s fulfilled by citizens and public servants side by side.

Throughout the country, my colleagues and I are taking meaningful steps to make good on this promise – and to expand our ability to protect and empower all of our citizens.  In meetings with law enforcement and community leaders – like the ones I’ve convened in Atlanta, Cleveland, and soon Memphis – we’re opening new lines of communication and cooperation.  Through the efforts of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – which has opened more than 20 investigations into police departments across the country in the last five fiscal years – we’re striving to correct unconstitutional policing practices.

In conjunction with the President’s recent policy announcements – reforming the way the federal government equips state and local law enforcement, particularly with military-style equipment; investing in the use of body cameras and promoting proven community policing initiatives; and engaging law enforcement and community leaders to reduce crime while building public trust – I’m confident that all of these efforts will help to move us forward.  And I can think of no better place to renew our shared commitment to this work than right here in Memphis.

Following today’s summit, I will visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King’s room is preserved just as it was on the night he lost his life.  He knew, when he arrived here – on April 3, 1968 – that threats had been made against him.  He spoke frankly about these threats, and about his own mortality, in the Mason Temple speech that was to be his last.  He acknowledged, at the age of just 39, that his life might soon come to a violent end.  Yet his optimism did not waver.  His dedication to nonviolence, and adherence to nonaggression, did not wane.  And his unshakeable faith – in the Divine, in the promise of what this nation could become, and especially in his fellow citizens – remained stronger than ever.

Dr. King believed – as we believe – in the need for mutual respect, and the power of nonviolent, collective action.  He recognized that nonviolence is the single best path to bring about enduring change.  He once wrote that promoting nonviolence – and love – is the only way to “cut off the chain of hate.”  And he called us all to remember that “the aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.” 

Today, in this moment of challenge – and far too much bitterness – let us reclaim these timeless principles.  In this age of division, let us once more reach for peace.  In this hour of darkness, let us live by Dr. King’s shining example.  And in this time of trial, and great consequence, let us remember the assurance of his last public speech: that the power to achieve transformational progress lies within us – because, in his immortal words, “. . . somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly.  Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech.  Somewhere I read of the freedom of press.  Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.  And so just as I say we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around.  We are going on.  We need all of you.”

As we take up this work anew; as we address the challenges now before us; and as we meet the great struggles of our time, I want you to know that we will continue to “need all of you” – in cities like Memphis – to keep pushing us forward.  We will keep relying on you to honor the history of progress that lives in hallowed places across this city, as in so many others.  And we will never stop working – with optimism, with commitment, and without delay – to build renewed trust and forge that more perfect Union – that beloved community – that remains our common pursuit.  To keep walking, together, toward the Promised Land.  And to do everything in our power to ensure that – in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community – justice is done.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015