As prepared for delivery
Thank you, Richard [Toscano], for that kind introduction – and for all that you and your colleagues in the Equal Employment Opportunity Office – and across the Justice Management Division – have done to help the Department commemorate Black History Month once again this year.
Thank you all for joining us. And let me also thank Dana [Paige], and each of our distinguished panelists, for their participation this morning – and for helping to make today’s program so special.
Each February, millions of people across the country come together to observe Black History Month, and to celebrate the extraordinary contributions that generations of African Americans have made in shaping, securing, and strengthening our nation. Throughout this month, Americans of all races and backgrounds are called upon to reconnect with one another – and to rededicate ourselves to the principles that lie at the core of everything that we must stand for – and, in particular, all that we fight for here at the Department of Justice.
Over the course of two centuries – and even within many of our own lifetimes – our nation has made remarkable, once-unimaginable progress in the struggle to ensure equality and opportunity for all citizens. There’s no question that we’ve come a long way since the days when segregation was the law of the land; when sit-ins and Freedom Rides captured our attention and rallied this country to the cause of civil rights; and when a young preacher from Atlanta led millions in a historic march on this city, and – not far from where we gather today – shared his dream with all the world.
Like some of you, I remember those days quite well. I will never forget the terrible tragedies – and the great triumphs – that marked the Civil Rights movement. And I believe we all have good reason to be proud of the dramatic improvements that this movement – and, in very real ways, this Department – have helped to bring about in the decades since.
At the same time, it’s impossible to deny the tremendous obstacles – and persistent problems – that so many Americans currently face. Despite decades of struggle – even in America’s most vibrant and prosperous cities – there are far too many communities where the doors to learning and job opportunities remain firmly closed; where the promise of equal justice is unfulfilled; and where thousands of children are growing up at risk and in need. That’s why – as we gather to celebrate Black History Month – we must also seize this moment not only to reflect on how far we’ve come – but also to consider how much farther we still have to go.
This year’s theme – “Black Women in American Culture and History” – shines a light, in particular, on pioneers like Sojourner Truth, who fought for freedom and women’s rights; Rosa Parks, who helped fuel the spark that ignited a national movement for civil rights; Vivian Malone, my late sister in law who, with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, integrated the University of Alabama; and Maya Angelou, whose words educate, enrich, and inspire us today.
The stories of these and so many other women and civil rights champions have helped to define the United States as a nation of ever-expanding opportunity, and of truly limitless promise for every citizen. And yet, even today, in 2012, their critical work of seeking and securing justice for all Americans goes on.
As members of this Department and as servants of our fellow citizens, each of us has a special role to play in advancing our nation’s history of progress – and America’s ongoing work to live up to its founding principles.
Over the last three years, many of the dedicated professionals in – and beyond – this Great Hall have helped to advance these efforts. Because of you, this Department is moving aggressively – and effectively – to make real the promise of a fair and just America. We’ve restored and reinvigorated the work of the Civil Rights Division, whose mission remains as essential – and as urgent – as ever. And we’ve taken significant steps to ensure that – across all of our components, and in offices throughout the country and around the world – all Americans have an equal opportunity to serve, and to thrive, in this Department.
Although I’m proud of the record of progress that we’ve achieved, this is no time to be satisfied. I am not satisfied. And we cannot – and will not – become complacent.
In particular, we cannot ignore the growing drumbeat of concern that I’ve been hearing from Americans – in communities from coast to coast – who fear that some recent changes in state voting laws may signal that decades of hard-earned progress now hangs in the balance. These citizens understand and appreciate the fact that, throughout our nation’s history, no force has proven more integral to the success of the great American experiment than the ability of a diverse array of citizens to participate in our democracy. Fair and equal access to the ballot box represents the cornerstone of our system of governance. President Lyndon Johnson may have put it best, when he signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, and he observed that the right to vote is – quite simply – our “most basic right.”
That’s why this Department– and, specifically, the Civil Rights Division and its Voting Section – have taken meaningful steps to ensure integrity, independence, and transparency in our aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. We are, for example, continuing to subject proposed changes to voting rules to thorough and fair reviews. And – so long as I have the privilege of serving as Attorney General – this work will continue to be a top priority.
But all of this is only the beginning. As advocates – and as allies – we must remain vigilant in safeguarding the civil rights of all Americans. Every day, we must rededicate ourselves to these vital efforts – and to our common cause – of insisting that this great country lives up to its highest ideals of fairness, equality, opportunity, and justice for all.
Today, as we pause to honor our nation’s past – and to reaffirm our vision for the future that we will share and, together, must build – we are fortunate to be joined by a distinguished panel of senior Department leaders – from the Civil Division, the Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys – who will take part in a wide-ranging conversation about the opportunities and challenges facing African-American women in legal and law enforcement professions.
I look forward to hearing their insights. I applaud the remarkable work that they – and all of you – are leading. And I am grateful for the opportunity to celebrate with you throughout this month – and to work with you each day.