Thank you, President Brown, for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning, and a privilege to be joined by so many of the faculty members, administrators – and, most importantly, students – who make Clark Atlanta University such an extraordinary place.
I’d like to thank President Brown; my good friend and former classmate, Dr. Moses; and Trustee Melton for hosting today’s important discussion – and welcoming me to your beautiful campus. For more than a generation, Clark Atlanta University has served as a training ground for future leaders, a proving ground for innovative ideas, and a meeting ground for thoughtful debate – where issues of national consequence are considered and addressed. This morning, it’s an honor to add my voice to this dialogue, and to join you not only in reflecting on the history that we share, but in honoring the uniquely American values that have shaped this history – and rededicating ourselves to the ongoing struggle for equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal justice.
It’s fitting that we gather this morning on the campus of a University that was born, a quarter century ago, with the consolidation of two historic institutions. Each was established in the aftermath of the Civil War – at a time when people of color, women, and far too many others were largely excluded from the higher education system. It was an era defined by Reconstruction and marred by racially-motivated violence, as the chaos of war gave way to an uneasy peace. It was an age of discrimination – when Jim Crow laws were conceived and passed, segregation was ubiquitous, and the unjust “separate but equal” doctrine was on its way to being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet the founders of Clark College and Atlanta University were undaunted by the sharp divisions of their time. And they dared to put forward a vision of hope – by establishing thriving academic communities made up predominantly of African-American students.
Today, the young men and women before me are heirs of this audacious vision – which was guided by values first inspired by the patriots who risked their lives, more than two centuries ago, to begin building the “more perfect Union” that remains our common pursuit. Most of all, you are the heirs of civil rights pioneers – from James Weldon Johnson, to W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. Ralph Abernathy – who were once part of the Clark College and Atlanta University communities; who rallied their countrymen and -women to the cause that became a national movement; and who devoted themselves to securing the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress that has redefined our country in the century and a half since these institutions were founded.
These are citizens who risked their lives to keep the great American experiment in motion, and to further the aspirations set forth in founding documents that declared all to be created equal – and that established the democratic tools and structures that enable us to move closer to this ideal every day. At least one of these former students – James Hood, who attended Clark College for a short time, and passed away just last month – began to play an important role in history when he was about your age, or not much older. After deciding to enroll at the University of Alabama to study a subject that Clark didn’t offer at the time, he was turned away because of the color of his skin. But this did not discourage him. In 1963, alongside another student – named Vivian Malone, who would later become my sister-in-law – they won the support of the courts, and the help of the Justice Department, to tear down the racial barrier that stood in their way. And in the summer of that year – with Justice Department officials at their sides, and the eyes of the nation upon them – these two courageous young people stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama.
Of course, for the students in this crowd today, I realize that stories like this one – and images like that infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” – may seem like ancient history. But that’s only because your predecessors – and mine – set out to make them ancient history. Thanks to these pioneers – the countless men and women who have risked everything to secure the progress we enjoy today – there’s no question that our nation has come a long way on the road to equality and opportunity. There’s no doubt that we have much to be proud of – and encouraged by – in the history we gather to celebrate this morning.
But there’s also no denying that this critical work remains unfinished. The struggle is not yet over. And even today – in 2013 – troubling divisions and disparities are all too common.
In too many jurisdictions, ordinary Americans may have reason to fear that their right to vote – and to have that vote counted – has come under renewed threat. And in too many vibrant cities, there are neighborhoods where too many kids go to prison, too few go to college – and funerals seem to be more common than weddings.
In fact – in America today – homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men, outpacing the next four causes combined. According to statistics collected over three decades – from 1976 to 2005 – more than 90 percent of black murder victims are killed by black assailants. And, as we saw here in Atlanta just last week, this senseless violence is rarely confined to certain groups or geographic areas. It can strike anywhere – at any time.
Last Thursday, a senseless shooting at Price Middle School – just a few miles from this campus – left two injured, including one young student. The very next day, a dispute over a basketball game in a Morehouse gym – not far from this auditorium – ended in gunfire.
Both of these events are shocking. They are outrageous. And they stand as reminders of the epidemic that, in one way or another, touches every city and town in this country – sometimes grabbing headlines, but too often passing virtually unnoticed in our streets.
Today – together – it’s time to declare that this violence must end. It’s time for our country to respond – as this community has – not with despair, but with resolve. Over the last week, Clark Atlanta students have demonstrated unity by organizing anti-violence rallies. You’ve called attention to the gun-related crimes that steal promising futures every single day. And, like so many others throughout the nation, you’re helping to build a responsible dialogue about what can be done to address this problem – and to confront its underlying causes.
I’m inspired – and humbled – by the strength and resilience you’ve shown. More importantly, I want you to know that I’m proud to stand with you – and to join with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and our colleagues across the Administration – in advocating for a common-sense approach to reducing gun violence, preventing deadly weapons from falling into the wrong hands, and keeping our neighborhoods and schools more secure.
The Administration’s plan – which I helped the Vice President and others to develop, and which the President announced last month – includes a series of 23 executive actions that the Justice Department and other federal agencies are working to implement, along with a range of legislative proposals we’ve called upon Congress to pass without delay. Thanks to the support and engagement of countless Americans like you, I’m optimistic about where these efforts will lead us.
But, in addition to keeping the American people safe from gun violence, I want to take this opportunity to assure you that my colleagues and I are just as firmly committed to protecting the sacred civil rights to which every citizen is entitled. Nowhere is this more evident than in the work of the dedicated attorneys, staff, and law enforcement partners who serve in and with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. As Attorney General, I have the great privilege – and solemn duty – of leading national efforts to enforce the civil rights laws and protections that generations of advocates have fought to secure. This constitutes one of the Department’s highest priorities. And I’m proud to report that our approach has quite simply never been more effective.
In fact – under this Administration – we have taken significant, and in many cases historic, steps to prevent civil rights violations and make good on the promise of equal justice under law. Over the last four years, we’ve restored the Civil Rights Division’s ability to combat discrimination, intimidation, and bias-motivated violence. We’ve filed more criminal civil rights cases than ever before – including record numbers of police misconduct and human trafficking cases. And we’re utilizing a range of tools and authorities to move aggressively – and fairly – in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
Between 2009 and 2012, the Department convicted 140 defendants on federal hate crimes charges – an increase of more than 70 percent over the previous four years. Thanks to the landmark Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – which President Obama signed into law in 2009 – we’ve strengthened our ability to achieve justice on behalf of those who are victimized simply because of who they are – including Americans targeted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. And, under a variety of important laws, we’ve enhanced our focus on preventing and addressing discrimination in all its forms – and promoting the highest standards of integrity and professionalism across our nation’s law enforcement community.
In close cooperation with United States Attorneys – and with federal, state, local, and tribal partners – the Department is working with a variety of jurisdictions to help address serious policing challenges. Under this Administration, we’ve initiated more “pattern or practice” investigations, and partnered with more local departments to address unconstitutional use of force and discriminatory actions, than ever before.
This is not only helping to build public trust in the fairness and effectiveness of law enforcement operations – it’s reinvigorating relationships that allow us to combat deplorable crimes like human trafficking. Thanks to these important partnerships, over the past four years, we’ve increased trafficking prosecutions by nearly 40 percent. And in 2012, we brought more cases than in any other year on record.
Over the same period, we’ve moved – both fairly and aggressively – to safeguard what’s been called the “most basic” right of American citizenship: the right to vote. Through our vigorous enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement, and one of our most effective tools for preventing disenfranchisement in our elections – the Justice Department has carefully evaluated a number of proposed voting changes in states across the country – from redistricting plans, to photo identification requirements, and changes affecting third-party voter registration and early voting procedures. Last year, our Voting Section handled more than 40 new cases – nearly doubling the previous single-year record. Under other important statutes, we’ve taken action to protect the voting rights of Americans living abroad, language minorities, U.S. service members, and others. And we’ve filed ten lawsuits – including one right here in Georgia – to preserve the rights of these populations.
Now, we can all be proud of the track record that’s been established – and the results we’ve obtained – in recent years. But we must also recognize that government can’t do it all – and we’ll never be able make the progress we need, and that our citizens deserve, on our own.
That’s why I’m counting on all of you to answer the call to service; to join my colleagues and me in protecting the safety – and the civil rights – of our fellow citizens; and to help extend the legacy of progress with which each of us has been entrusted.
As students of Clark Atlanta University, you’ve been given a rare chance to follow in the footsteps of civil rights pioneers – no matter which field of study you’ve chosen to pursue, or what direction your life and career will take when you leave this campus. So, in the coming months and years, as you fan out across Georgia and around the country – seeking to make a living, and striving to make your mark – I urge you to find ways to serve your communities, to give back to our nation, and to draw inspiration from the remarkable history that constitutes both your inheritance and your sacred charge.
Of course, this won’t always be easy. Like all who have gone before you, from time to time, you may encounter failure and frustration. But if, as they say, what’s past is prologue – then there’s good reason for confidence in where the next generation of Clark Atlanta students will lead us. And I’m certain that – if you continue to believe in yourselves, and in one another; if you hold fast to the values that inspired this University’s founding; and if you stay true to its extraordinary history – yours will be a future defined by continued progress – and limitless possibilities.