Thank you, Richard [Toscano], for those kind words, and for all that you and your colleagues in the Equal Employment Opportunity Office – and across the Justice Management Division – have done to bring us together for this important annual observance. It’s a pleasure to welcome so many friends and colleagues to the Great Hall today. And it’s a privilege to join you, once again, in celebrating African American History Month.
I also want to thank our distinguished panelists – ATF Director [B. Todd] Jones, BOP Director [Charles] Samuels, and U.S. Attorney [Loretta] Lynch, along with our moderator, Charlotte Burrows, – for lending their voices, and their unique perspectives, to today’s program. We’re honored to have you with us. And I want you to know how much I appreciate your leadership in helping to strengthen this Department – and securing a more just and more equal future for everyone in this country.
Six decades ago, with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, our nation took a historic step toward ending the injustice of “separate but equal” – and building the momentum of a modern Civil Rights Movement. People of all ages – from every corner of the nation – were inspired and emboldened by the persistence, and the fierce conviction, of those who had made the Brown decision possible – including Thurgood Marshall, Reverend Oliver Brown himself, Charles Hamilton Houston, and the nearly 200 plaintiffs who joined the NAACP’s class action suit. Through the principled efforts of these seemingly ordinary citizens and many others, our country’s future was forever altered by a single, extraordinary legal opinion – even though the changes mandated by that ruling were painfully slow to take hold.
Like all who are old enough to remember those days, I will never forget the turmoil and violence that characterized the Civil Rights era – as untold millions stood up, and spoke out, and sat in to secure the basic rights which were theirs as Americans. Year after year, they braved dogs and fire hoses; billy clubs and baseball bats; bullets and bombs. Progress came, in fits and starts, thanks to their courage, their profound sacrifice, and the leadership of pioneers like Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and even my late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone. In 1963 – with the support of President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, accompanied by members of the federalized National Guard – Vivian and James Hood walked past Governor George Wallace to become the first two African Americans to enroll at the University of Alabama. At their side on that fateful day was Deputy Attorney General Nick Katzenbach – whose portrait hangs in my personal office, and whose commitment to justice and equality was echoed by other Department leaders and principled legal professionals across the country.
Together, these remarkable men and women helped to open a new frontier in the cause of civil rights. And as we gather this morning – to reflect on the progress we’ve seen in the legal and law enforcement fields, and to renew our resolve to carry this work into the future – we also give thanks to those who blazed the trail that has led us to this moment. We pledge to continue their important efforts. And we reaffirm our shared dedication to protecting the rights of every American – of every race, religion, background, gender, orientation, color, and creed – in order to make real the promise of justice and equal opportunity that has guided this Republic since its earliest days.
After all, even now – in 2014 – as we prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this work remains anything but finished. And despite once-unimaginable steps forward, significant obstacles remain. Just last year, the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – denying this Department an essential tool for combating discriminatory voting rules, regulations, and procedures that discourage and disenfranchise. Yet we remain steadfast in our efforts to ensure access to the ballot box for all eligible citizens. As you know, the Civil Rights Division has shifted resources to augment its enforcement of other key protections, including provisions of the Voting Rights Act that remain intact. The Department is currently challenging voting restrictions in North Carolina and Texas. 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.
As heirs to the achievements of prior generations, today’s leaders – and especially today’s lawyers – must do much more than simply prevent the unraveling of the progress that’s been entrusted to us. We are charged with building on the advances that others once sacrificed so much to bring about. And we are called to keep fighting for civil rights and equal justice by expanding our focus – to include the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of American Indians, of LGBT individuals, of people with disabilities – and countless others across the country who still yearn for equality, opportunity, and fair treatment.
In a variety of ways, we’re forging ahead to bring about the difference we seek – by implementing the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor; by working to end disparities in America’s criminal justice system; by calling for the restoration of voting rights for those with past convictions; by standing against discrimination in all its forms; and by preventing and combating hate crimes. Every Department of Justice employee, and every legal and law enforcement professional throughout the nation, can be proud of efforts that are currently underway. And here at the Department, we’re leading by example – through programs like our Diversity Management Initiative, which is helping us recruit and retain a highly-qualified workforce that’s reflective of our nation’s rich diversity. And as we strive to continue these efforts – and gather today to reaffirm our dedication to building the brighter future we envision – I want to thank you all for your ongoing commitment to this work. I am honored to count you as colleagues and partners. And I urge you to keep moving this nation forward, keep standing for that which is right, and keep fighting to ensure that good words are backed up by our good deeds.
I look forward to all that we’ll do and achieve together in the critical days ahead. Thank you.