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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Inaugural Justice Revius O. Ortique Jr. Lecture on Law and Society at Dillard University


New Orleans, LA
United States

Thank you, President Hughes. I appreciate your kind words, and I want to thank you for welcoming me to this beautiful campus. It is a pleasure to join with you, with Mayor Landrieu, and with so many current – and future – leaders of New Orleans and this nation.

I continue to be inspired by the resilience of this great city and by the resolve of its citizens. And I am extremely proud of the partnership that has been forged between your Mayor, your local government, its law enforcement leaders and the Department of Justice.

On behalf of the entire Department of Justice, it is a privilege to support the work that you are doing to rebuild and revitalize New Orleans, to ensure public safety and equal opportunity, to promote the highest standards of professional conduct and integrity, and to restore what Mayor Landrieu has called, “the sacred covenant between citizens and public servants.”

Today – as we commemorate the service and sacrifice of our nation’s veterans – we have a unique and important opportunity to think about this “sacred covenant,” to consider our shared responsibilities, and – of course – to reflect on the contributions and achievements that distinguished Justice Ortique’s career and defined his life.

It is an honor to help launch this lecture series, to be part of a new Dillard University tradition, and – in the spirit of Justice Ortique – to join you all in taking a step back from what we do and what we study to consider what we owe – to our communities, to our fellow citizens and to future generations.

Although more than six decades have passed since Revius Ortique was a Dillard University student, his example still serves as a reminder – across this campus and far beyond – that the actions of a single person can make a difference in countless lives.

As a U.S. Army Officer during World War II, he fought for peace and freedom – even as his country discriminated against him and denied his right to pursue his ambitions on equal terms. As a young law student, he vowed to improve America’s legal system. He also pledged to fight – peacefully – for equal justice and equal opportunity.

Revius Ortique fulfilled this pledge – helping to organize peaceful protests against segregation and to negotiate the integration of labor unions, schools, and public spaces across this city. He became a leader in Louisiana’s legal, civic and academic communities. He led the Urban League and the National Bar Association. He lifted the hopes of his fellow citizens and answered the calls of five different Presidents. In return, he called on these leaders to diversify the federal judiciary, to allow Americans of color to serve their country – not just on the battlefield, but on the bench as well. And when he became the first African American to serve on the Louisiana Supreme Court, Justice Ortique set an example, and opened the door of opportunity, for the generations of lawyers who followed him. Lawyers like me.

Without question, his commitment to public service was extraordinary. But, as a Dillard University alumnus, it was not exceptional. Generations of young people have graduated from this university – not only with a first-rate education – but also with a deeply ingrained passion to right wrongs, to improve communities and to empower our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

Today, this tradition continues. F or many of you, public service is not just a priority. It is a central part of your daily lives. Every Dillard student will complete at least 120 hours of community service before graduation. Many of you will exceed this mark. In fact, this year’s graduates completed nearly 23,000 hours of community service – 10,000 hours more than the university’s policy required. And I hear that the class of 2011 is working hard to raise the bar.

You are serving as tutors at nearby schools, providing food and clothing to low-income families, and mentoring young children. You are bringing comfort to sick patients and struggling seniors. You are working to protect this region’s wildlife and coastline. And you are empowering communities across this city that, despite hell and high water, are determined to rise up and rebuild.

In so many different ways, you are also strengthening Dillard’s tradition of service, action and activism – a legacy that is truly remarkable.

Half a century ago, Dillard students were among our nation’s most vocal advocates for social justice and civil rights. In March of 1960, just weeks after the first lunch counter sit-in took place in North Carolina, students on this campus helped to organize a similar demonstration here in New Orleans. Soon they joined with thousands of other young people who were leading efforts to fight segregation across the south.

In 1962, when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, this campus condemned the violence that followed. Dillard students called on Washington – reaching out to leaders in Congress, to President Kennedy and to my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy – to continue their support for civil rights and equal access to education. And these students kept on pressing the Justice Department to ensure the equal protection of the laws in 1963, when Alabama became the last of the southern states to end segregation in its schools. That year, as our country held its breath and our National Guard stood watch, my late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, was one of two African-American students who stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the campus of the University of Alabama.

This achievement – like the opportunities we have all been afforded and must never take for granted – was the direct result of the courage, compassion and contributions of others.

I believe Thurgood Marshall, our nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice, may have put it best when he said that, “none of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.”

Each of us has walked through a doorway of possibility that those who came before us pried open. And we must never let these efforts be in vain.

The responsibility for protecting the progress that our country has made – and for overcoming the many challenges still ahead – now falls on the shoulders of today’s leaders, teachers and students. That’s right – this responsibility now falls on you.

And although I can assure you that your service is needed, I can not tell you exactly what work you should pursue or precisely what role you should fulfill. That is for you to discover. But I will encourage you to follow Justice Ortique’s example – to seek out mentors who can help you find your calling, explore your passions, hone your skills and fulfill your potential – as well as your obligations.

Throughout his life, Justice Ortique sought the guidance of leaders he admired. And he relied on two mentors in particular: Dillard’s third president, Albert Dent, and the former counsel for the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP, A.P. Tureaud.

These mentors inspired Justice Ortique to organize the famous McDonogh Day Boycott, to speak out for integration and to pursue and utilize the power of a law degree to help bring about change. These mentors also gave him the confidence necessary – in the difficult days of the early 1960’s – to resist despair and disillusionment, to hold tight to his vision of a better world, and to believe in the words of President Kennedy, when he spoke this truth: “ No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

Throughout his life and career, Justice Ortique was quick to share credit for his achievements with his mentors – as well as his family members, colleagues and many partners. When he was congratulated for blazing trails, he would argue that he was, instead, simply following in the footsteps of those who had walked before him.

Today, we continue in his footsteps. And, despite the progress we have made as a nation, we have further to go.

Yes, it may be tempting – when you look at the diversity of people leading this city and walking the halls of Congress or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equality has been achieved for all Americans. But it will take more than the election of the first African-American President – and certainly more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General – to fully secure the promise of equality for every American.

Today, our nation’s quest for equal justice and equal opportunity continues.

Part of that effort must be to continue the work of Justice Ortique – and so many others – to bring greater diversity to the ranks of our nation’s lawyers.

Today, people of color account for more than 30 percent of our population, but just over 10 percent of America’s lawyers. A recent study revealed that, since 1993, the number of African-American students entering law schools has dropped by more than 7 percent. And although nearly half a century has passed since the integration of the federal judiciary, fewer than 9 percent of federal judges are African-American. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t thousands of future minority lawyers, judges and law professors out there. It only means that their talents have not yet been shared, that their potential has not yet been realized.

Yes, the doors of opportunity are open wider than they were when Justice Ortique was a student on this campus. But the simple truth, and the unfortunate fact, is that today – more than half a century later – inequality remains. Intolerance and injustice continue. Divisions and disparities persist. And hate-fueled violence, unfortunately, remains all too common.

This means that all of you – Louisiana’s, and America’s, best and brightest – have some important choices to make. You also have critical responsibilities to fulfill. In short, you have a future to build.

As you begin this work, remember that the pursuit of justice can take many forms – acts of compassion and dissent; campaign battles and courtroom trials; elections, investigations and protests. But no matter the form, it always begins the same way: with a simple action, by a hopeful person. Never doubt that it can begin with you.

As you think about the choices and challenges before you, I hope that you will commit, as Justice Ortique did, to standing for what you know to be right – and for what you believe will do the most good.

At the Department of Justice, we have come together over the last 22 months to determine the most effective ways to strengthen our justice system and to fulfill our nation’s promise of equal justice for all. I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished.

We have reinvigorated our civil rights enforcement efforts. We have taken meaningful steps to p rotect the rights of voters, veterans, soldiers, workers, students and Americans with disabilities. We are fighting to ensure that every American has the ability to access legal services – and the right to practice his or her faith without the fear of violence or prejudice. We are making extraordinary progress in combating hate crimes and human trafficking, and in ensuring fairness in our housing and lending markets. And, for this city and this nation, I want to reiterate the pledge that I made here earlier this year – in the wake of the largest oil spill in our nation’s history. The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that anyone found responsible for this disaster is held accountable, and that the appropriate civil – and, if warranted, criminal – authorities are enforced to the fullest extent of the law.

Every American – and certainly every person in this auditorium – can play a role in advancing this critical work in all the areas I have referenced.

Tonight, it is clear that the spirit of justice that motivated Justice Ortique still burns brightly. And I believe that the best way to honor this past – to pay tribute to Justice Ortique’s legacy and to the countless heroes who continue to inspire us – is to build on the progress we have seen.

This is your mission. And – until justice is no longer an aspiration, but a reality for every American – this is also your responsibility. This nation expects much from you, because you have so much to give. You are heirs to a great tradition. You are the future of this country. You must be true to the memory of the man we honor tonight and work to make America a place of true freedom and true equality.

Thank you.

Updated August 19, 2015