Thank you, Marc [Morial], for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a privilege to join every member of the National Urban League, both in this room and far beyond it, in renewing our shared commitment to the cause of equality. I’d particularly like to recognize my good friend Maudine Cooper, President and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League, who is retiring this year after more than two decades of service to the Urban League movement. Thank you for your contributions Maudine and your unwavering support. It’s an honor to stand alongside you and your colleagues this week as we continue the fight for social and economic justice – and carry forward the legacy of progress and achievement that has defined this organization for more than a century.
Since your founders first came together – in 1910, in my hometown of New York City – to combat discrimination and segregation in every sector of society, the National Urban League has distinguished itself through principled advocacy. In the era of Jim Crow and “separate but equal,” your members and leaders provided assistance and inspiration to citizens of every age, race, background, and walk of life. They helped to build the strength of the Civil Rights Movement, to rally generations to the cause of equality, and to realize the enduring promise of the American dream.
As we come together in Philadelphia today, the National Urban League continues to remind leaders, organizers, and advocates across America that – in the work of building a more perfect Union – each of us has an essential role to play. And you’re showing that we all have important responsibilities to fulfill.
This is particularly evident this year, as we assemble for your Annual Conference in the city where our Republic was born; in a moment of both challenge and opportunity; during a summer defined by historic milestones. Next month, our nation will mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – which this organization helped to facilitate – when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a quarter million civil rights supporters, shared his audacious dream with all the world, and called his fellow citizens to the pursuit of a truth first articulated in a colonial meeting hall not far from where we gather today – the notion that all are created equal and deserving of equal opportunity and treatment.
This is the ideal that has shaped this organization, and guided our country’s steps forward, through the turbulent events of the last century. And it’s the uniquely American principle that has led us to attain once-unimaginable progress over the years – in expanding economic opportunity, overturning legal discrimination, and attempting to ensure access to the ballot box for every eligible citizen.
There’s no question that we have much to be proud of, and encouraged by, as we meet to celebrate the acts of courage and selflessness that have led the National Urban League to this moment. But there’s also no denying that your work – our work – is anything but complete. Our journey is not yet over. And today, despite all that you’ve helped to accomplish, our important struggle must go on.
Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued a deeply disappointing – and flawed – decision that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the cornerstone of modern civil rights law. This landmark protection – which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, and was reauthorized by overwhelming, bipartisan Congressional majorities as recently as 2006 – included a provision that allowed the Justice Department to take action against any covered jurisdiction that adopted voting rules or procedures with either a discriminatory purpose or effect.
For nearly five decades, this requirement – called “preclearance” – served as a potent tool for addressing inequities in our election systems. Although preclearance originated during the Civil Rights Movement – and was informed by a history of discrimination – the conduct that it was intended to address continues to this day. Preclearance has proven to be an effective mechanism that puts on hold any new voting changes until they have been subjected to a fair, and thorough, review. This process regularly resulted in approvals for impartial voting changes. But it also allowed the Justice Department to work with covered jurisdictions to address problems wherever they occurred – protecting the ability of all eligible citizens to participate in the process of self-governance.
In fact, just last year, a federal court noted the “vital function” the Voting Rights Act played in protecting African American voters who would have been disproportionately impacted by a photo ID law in South Carolina. It prompted the state to change the way its new voting statute will be implemented in future elections to eliminate what would have been a dramatic discriminatory effect. Another court cited the Voting Rights Act in blocking a Texas congressional redistricting map that would have discriminated against Latino voters. And in that ruling, the court noted that the parties “provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here.”
As these and many other cases demonstrate; as too many voters have seen firsthand; and as every member of the Supreme Court acknowledged in the Shelby decision – in the words of the Chief Justice: “voting discrimination still exists: no one doubts that.” Although mandated by the Constitution, voting rights are not always guaranteed – in practice – without robust enforcement. That’s why, despite the Court’s decision, I believe we must regard this setback not as a defeat, but as an historic opportunity: for Congress to restore, and even to strengthen, modern voting protections.
After all, this has never been a partisan issue. Every reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act was signed into law by a Republican president. It’s a question of our values as a nation. It goes to the heart of who we are as a people. And it’s incumbent upon Congressional leaders from both parties to guarantee that every eligible American will always have equal access to the polls; to ensure that we will never turn our back on the hard-won progress of the last hundred years; and to consider new solutions that are equal to the challenges of the 21st century.
As this debate unfolds, it’s important for all Americans to note that – despite the Supreme Court’s flawed ruling – our voting rights remain fully intact.
It is the responsibility of every member of this organization – and every citizen of this country – to keep defending their rights by exercising them, by registering to vote, by going to the polls on Election Day, and by casting a ballot for their preferred candidates of any political party. Never forget that an involved and concerned electorate can overcome any amount of money the special interests might spend in trying to shape our nation to suit their narrow vision.
And it is the duty of today’s Justice Department to continue monitoring jurisdictions around the country for changes that may hamper these voting rights. To keep taking appropriately aggressive action against any jurisdiction that attempts to hinder free and fair access to the franchise. And to keep refining and re-focusing current enforcement efforts – while we work with Congress to craft stronger tools for protecting voting rights.
With these goals in mind, I have already directed the Department’s Civil Rights Division to shift resources to the enforcement of a number of federal voting laws not affected by the Supreme Court’s decision – including the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting voting discrimination based on race, color, or language.
And today I am announcing that the Justice Department will ask a federal court in Texas to subject the State of Texas to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This request to “bail in” the state – and require it to obtain “pre-approval” from either the Department or a federal court before implementing future voting changes – is available under the Voting Rights Act when intentional voting discrimination is found. Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder – as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized – we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices.
This is the Department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last. Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against discrimination wherever it is found. But let me be very clear: these remaining tools are no substitute for legislation that must fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision. This issue transcends partisanship, and we must work together. We cannot allow the slow unraveling of the progress that so many, throughout history, have sacrificed so much to achieve. And, in our broader efforts, we will continue to look far beyond America’s ballot boxes – to our schools, military bases, and border areas; our immigrant communities, our criminal justice system, and even our workplaces – in order to advance the fight for equality and against injustice.
As the National Urban League understands better than most, this fight also extends to every segment of our workforce and every sector of our economy – because our country is strongest when every American has a fair shot at economic opportunity. This is why the Justice Department is moving aggressively to guard against financial fraud, to ensure robust competition, and to hold accountable all those who would undermine the integrity of our housing and lending markets. It’s also why the Administration as a whole will continue to advance the priorities that President Obama laid out in Illinois yesterday afternoon – not just to create jobs in the near term, but to invest in our future – and build on the 40 straight months of economic growth we’ve seen.
Moving forward, we know that our success will depend upon our ability to grow our country’s economy not from the top down – but from the middle out. It will be predicated on the strength of a resurgent middle class – as more Americans gain access to educational and job opportunities, purchase homes they can call their own, begin to save for retirement, and experience the benefits of affordable health care when they need it. As the President made clear, leaders from Congress, the Administration, and the private sector must work together to look beyond the challenges of the moment, to expand economic empowerment, to lay the groundwork for a brighter future, and – ultimately – to restore the American dream. The needs of the American people are great; the time for partisan gamesmanship is over.
Just as it always has been, the American dream is founded – today – on the fundamental promise of equal protection, and equal justice under law, for everyone in this country. And each of us must seize this moment to rededicate ourselves to the legacy that inspired the National Urban League’s founding – and which has driven the progress of the last century: the long, and ongoing, struggle for civil rights.
I’m deeply proud of all that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has done to advance this struggle over the last four and a half 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 Crime Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2009, we’ve improved our ability to hold accountable those who commit bias-motivated acts of violence. We’ve worked, in a variety of ways, to strengthen the Department’s capacity to combat discrimination, bullying, and harassment – and to protect the most vulnerable members of society, our children, from violence and abuse. We remain determined, despite unnecessary setbacks, to pass commonsense measures to prevent and reduce the gun violence that afflicts too many communities, and steals too many promising futures, each day. Under President Obama, we will continue to lead the effort to make our criminal justice system more fair. And we are committed to fighting alongside groups like this one, and our colleagues throughout the Administration, to achieve additional changes by enacting new legislation – including meaningful, comprehensive immigration reform.
Today, I want to assure you that – so long as I have the privilege of serving as Attorney General – this vital work will go on. The enforcement of essential civil rights protections will remain a top priority for the United States Department of Justice. And we will continue to rely on the leadership, the partnership, and the steadfast dedication of passionate citizens like all of you – and extraordinary organizations like the National Urban League.
Over the last century – and in your contemporary efforts – this group has repeatedly proven the power of individual voices to inspire positive collective action. As we keep moving forward, I believe we can all be confident in where your efforts will lead us. But I also recognize – as you do, and as Dr. King reminded us, on that summer day 50 years ago – that “we can never be satisfied . . . until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This morning – as we gather just a few blocks from the hall where our Republic was born – we must recommit ourselves to the cause of justice. We must join Dr. King in declaring that we, too, are far from satisfied and are still impatient. And we must pledge to honor his example – and the contributions of so many throughout our history – by protecting the progress they worked so hard to establish. By carrying on their unfinished work. And by striving, every day, to continue the long march toward equality, opportunity, and justice – along the trail that was blazed by our forebears, and the path that still stretches – beyond the horizon – to the Promised Land.
Thank you. May God bless our journey. And may God bless the United States of America.