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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Luncheon


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Marc [Morial ].  It is a privilege to stand with you, and to join with so many distinguished leaders and old friends, and with so many members of the King family, as we celebrate the life, and the enduring legacy, of our nation’s great “drum major for justice” – the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although more than four decades have passed since his tragic death, it is clear that Dr. King’s spirit lives on.  It still has the power to bring ordinary people together to accomplish extraordinary things; to inspire acts of courage, compassion, and collaboration; and to embolden people to blaze new trails, to overcome longstanding obstacles, and, of course, to make history.

In three days, we will do just that.  Together, before hundreds of thousands of people here in our nation’s capital, and before millions more watching on television, we will gather near the place where, nearly half a century ago, Dr. King shared his dream with all the world and called forth the best in the American people, the best in all of us. 

In the presence of leaders who once struggled alongside Dr. King – and shoulder-to-shoulder with many others who strive, undaunted, to advance his sacred cause still today – we will join with President Obama to dedicate a permanent memorial to this extraordinary leader and to his enduring legacy.

This moment has been a long time coming.  Too long.  And it never would  have been possible without the tireless efforts of many of the people in this room.  Some of you have been working for decades to secure appropriate recognition for Dr. King.  You deserve the profound appreciation of your fellow citizens for your efforts, and I personally want to thank you for everything you have done to make this weekend’s historic commemoration possible.

While we have much to celebrate this week, our time together must not be simply marked by revelry and pageantry.  Rather, we must seize this unique and important opportunity: to rededicate ourselves to Dr. King’s vision of racial and social equality; to revitalize his efforts to expand economic opportunity; and to reaffirm the values that were at the heart of his sermons, the root of his actions, the core of his character, and the center of his life: tolerance; non-violence; compassion; love; and, above all, justice. 

Though we consecrate this weekend a magnificent monument of granite that will sit on hallowed ground, we also must rekindle within ourselves and within our fellow citizens the spirit of the man who enlightened our nation to the eternal truth of the commonality of humankind, and the equality of all people. 

Despite all that’s been achieved in recent years, the work of strengthening our nation and empowering all of our fellow citizens is incomplete.  As with every generation, this work is now our work; this task is now our task; this dream is now our dream.  The challenges before us, and the divisions that, too often, separate too many of us from one another, have evolved.  But addressing them will require the same skills, the same perseverance, and the same vision as those so nobly exemplified by Dr. King.  And the time to act has never been more urgent.

Let’s be clear – we have not yet reached the Promised Land that Dr. King spoke of.  I say this fully aware of the fact that a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement is now in the White House, and that another direct beneficiary has the honor of leading our nation’s Department of Justice.  And yet, still today, after so many decades of struggle, even in America’s most vibrant and prosperous cities, it cannot be denied that there are 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.

Even knowing these stark facts, we must resist the temptation to give in to cynicism and despair.  Today, we are called to look upon our country as Dr. King did – seeing not only great challenges, but also extraordinary opportunities.  And it is our moral imperative to remember the greatest lesson he left behind: that each one of us has the power, and the obligation, to improve the lives of others.

This is, as always, a difficult task.  The work of perfecting our union never has been, and never will be, easy.  And it may not always be popular.  But Dr. King’s example – and very soon, a monument in his honor – will stand as an eternal testament to the fact that, in the work of promoting peace and ensuring justice, one person can, and must, make a difference.  Individual actions count, and individuals must stand and be counted.  Because those who are willing to march toward progress, to defend a principle, to reach out a hand to others, or, simply, to take a seat – in a courthouse or in a classroom, at a lunch counter or at the front of a bus – can, and indeed will, change the world.

Each of us has this ability, and, I firmly believe, this responsibility.  We have no excuses for failing to act.  All of us have been blessed with an extraordinary example set by a remarkable man that will guide our steps forward.  And on Sunday, we will have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to this mission and to this journey, and to the work that defined and distinguished Dr. King’s life.

As we dedicate his memorial, it is fitting to remember that, as long as this Republic endures, that site – like the words Dr. King spoke, and the impact he has had on our society – will remain an indelible part of our national landscape. 

His statue will stand, at long last, in sight of four other monuments – to our nation’s first President, its architect, its Great Emancipator and its greatest defender – five towering giants of our history, whose legacies reside in the freedoms each of us enjoys today.

There, on our National Mall, Dr. King – not a President, and yet far more than an ordinary man – will be honoredamong men who are, in a historical sense, his peers.  And his legacy will, if we work to make it so, inspire generations to come.

Once again, I thank you for everything you all have done to make this possible, for your continued commitment to Dr. King’s work, and for sharing his faith that, one day, we will surely walk, together, into the Promised Land.

Updated August 18, 2015