Skip to main content

Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center


Cincinnati, OH
United States


As prepared for delivery


Thank you, Kim [Robinson]. It is a pleasure to be with you – and to be among so many friends, colleagues, and critical partners. I want to thank you and your team – as well as the Center’s board members, and network of volunteers and supporters – for inviting and welcoming me this evening.

I am proud to be counted among the thousands of visitors who have come through the doors of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center over the last eight years. And I am especially grateful for the opportunity to salute the important work that you are doing here – to provide a place of learning, healing, and advocacy; to shed light on our nation’s long – and ongoing – struggle for equal justice; and to bring attention to the suffering of millions – all around the world – who remain enslaved.

The efforts that you are leading – and the call to action that you are consistently issuing – honors our nation’s most noble and enduring cause. The cause that gave birth to America’s founding – and gave rise to the Abolitionist movement. The cause that sustained the compassion of those who risked all they had to provide refuge to the most vulnerable and oppressed members of their society. And the cause that has fueled the courage of generations of Americans who have dreamed of, marched toward, and worked for fairness and opportunity for all – including the conductors, passengers, pioneers, and patriots whose stories are enshrined in this Center: the men, women, and children who – with little more than a spark of faith and the light of the North Star – escaped to the riverbanks just below us, and washed away the bonds of slavery in the waters of the Ohio River.

I am talking, of course, about the cause of freedom – which, for more than two centuries, has pressed this nation forward – toward remarkable, once-unimaginable progress. Progress that we must not only celebrate – but also work to protect.

Through your contributions to this Center – and your work across, and beyond, this great city – many of the people in this room are doing just that. In so many different ways – in classrooms and courtrooms, in houses of worship and halls of justice, and in your own homes and neighborhoods – you are heeding and sharing the lessons of our past in order to shape and to strengthen America’s future.

Fifty years ago this spring, another Attorney General – and one of my personal heroes, Robert F. Kennedy – traveled to Cincinnati to discuss this very subject: the future of our country.

“History,” he said, “knows no inevitability. It faces the unknown with anticipation and with faith.”

That was the spring of 1962 – a time that only the “most distinguished” of us can recall firsthand, but an era that – even the students here – know well. It was a transformative period in our nation’s history – marked by unprecedented threats, long-standing divisions, and widespread frustration. A time that, in some ways, wasn’t so different from today.

Although Attorney General Kennedy was speaking four decades before ground would be broken for the creation of this Center, he gave voice to the message that permeates – and embodies – this place: that progress is not – and never has been – predestined. Progress is not something we inherit. It is something that we earn. It is something that – like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Still, Levi Coffin, and so many others – we must set out, and often struggle and sacrifice, to achieve. And it is something that we must actively – and vigilantly – safeguard.

This Center stands as a monument to the progress that has defined and distinguished America’s story. But it also serves an important reminder that – despite all that’s been achieved – we have more to do. And – as the beneficiaries of those who blazed the trails that we now travel, and as the recipients of the freedoms that our predecessors fought to ensure – we not only have obstacles to overcome; we have responsibilities to fulfill.

As I toured some of the exhibits here this afternoon, I was reminded of this enduring truth – and of the fact that, in this great country, no force has proven more integral to our ongoing progress, or more essential to advancing the cause of freedom, than efforts to expand the opportunities – and the rights – of citizenship. And I would argue that – of all the freedoms we enjoy today – none is more important, or more sacred, than the right to vote.

Of course, I’m hardly the first to make such an assessment.

In July of 1965, when President Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law, he proclaimed that, “the right to vote is the basic right, without which all others are meaningless.” A month earlier, on a trip to Ohio to rally support for this legislation, Dr. King equated the right to vote with the concept of freedom – and predicted, correctly, that a law ensuring equal access to the ballot box was an “idea whose time has come.”

Today, as Attorney General, I have the privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing this law, and the other civil rights reforms that President Johnson, Dr. King, Robert Kennedy, and so many others once championed.

For our nation’s Department of Justice, and for our government and law enforcement partners across the country, this is among our highest priorities. This is evident in the historic progress that’s been made by this Administration – especially when it comes to expanding access to legal services; to combating hate crimes, community violence, and human trafficking; and to strengthening law enforcement efforts so that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our immigrant communities and our voting booths – the rights of all Americans are protected.

Our efforts honor the generations of Americans who have taken extraordinary risks, and willingly confronted hatred, bias, and ignorance, to ensure that their children, and all citizens, would have the chance to participate in the work of their government. And our efforts reflect the fact that the right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our system of government, it is – and always has been – the lifeblood of our democracy. No force has proved more powerful – or more integral to the success of the great American experiment – than efforts to expand the franchise.

Despite this history, and despite our nation’s long tradition of extending voting rights – to non-property owners and women, to people of color and Native Americans, and to younger Americans – today, a growing number of our fellow citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – nearly five decades ago – so many fought to address. In my travels across this country, I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from citizens, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble ideals; and that some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance.

Let me assure you: for today’s Department of Justice, our commitment to strengthening – and to fulfilling – our nation’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice has never been stronger.

Nowhere is this clearer than in current efforts to expand access to, and prevent discrimination in, our election systems. We are dedicated to aggressively enforcing the Voting Rights Act – and to fulfilling our obligations under Section 2, Section 5, and Section 4 of this vital law.

Under Section 2, which prohibits racially discriminatory practices that amount to either vote denial or vote dilution, we have opened a record number of new investigations – more than 100 in the last fiscal year. You have seen the fruits of the Department’s Section 2 enforcement here in Ohio, in the City of Euclid, where our lawsuit resulted in new election methods for the city council and school board. We’ve also had success – without litigation – in encouraging voluntary improvements and compliance

At the same time, Section 5 – which requires preclearance of proposed voting changes in parts or all of sixteen states – continues to be a critical tool in the protection of voting rights. In 2006, it was reauthorized with near-unanimous support in Congress, before being signed by President Bush.

However, despite the long history of support for Section 5, this keystone of our voting rights laws is now being challenged as unconstitutional by several jurisdictions. Each of these lawsuits claims that we’ve attained a new era of electoral equality, that America in 2012 has moved beyond the challenges of 1965, and that Section 5 is no longer necessary.

I wish this were the case. But the reality is that – in jurisdictions across the country – both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common – and have not yet been relegated to the pages of history.

That’s why institutions like this one are so important. And that’s why the Justice Department will continue to vigorously defend Section 5 against challenges to its constitutionality.  We’re now reviewing a number of redistricting plans in covered jurisdictions, as well as other types of changes to our election systems and processes – including changes to the procedures governing third-party voter registration organizations, to early voting procedures, and to photo identification requirements – to ensure that there is no discriminatory purpose or effect.  And, as we have proven repeatedly, when a jurisdiction fails to meet its burden of proving that a proposed voting change would not have a racially discriminatory effect – we will object.

Furthermore, as we’ve signaled here in Ohio, we are committed to ensuring that the protections for language minorities included in the Voting Rights Act are aggressively enforced.  Two of our recent voting rights cases in this state – in lawsuits the Department filed in Cuyahoga County and in Lorain County – have been brought to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican voters.  I’m pleased to report that, in both counties, we have reached agreements to ensure that bilingual ballots are available on county voting machines, and that bilingual poll workers are stationed in targeted districts.  The agreements also provide for the creation of an advisory committee to help ensure that Spanish-speaking voters receive the help they need to cast their votes effectively.

This work reflects the simple truth that we need – and that the American people deserve – election systems that are free from discrimination, free from partisan influence, and free from fraud. And we must do everything within our power to make certain that these systems are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country. The Justice Department will continue working to protect the voting rights of U.S. service members and veterans, and to enforce other laws that protect Americans living abroad, citizens with disabilities, and language minorities. But we can’t do it alone.

Protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative. And this must be true for every citizen, in every state. No matter where you live, you have the ability – and the responsibility – to support policies aimed at modernizing our voting systems; at ensuring that all eligible citizens have access to complete, accurate, and understandable information about where, when, and how they can cast a ballot; and at preventing and punishing fraudulent voting practices.

As I have stated repeatedly, voter fraud is not acceptable – and will not be tolerated by this Justice Department. This is a personal priority – and part of a commitment that I made early in my career, when I actually investigated and prosecuted voting-fraud cases. I know firsthand what so many studies and assessments have shown – that making voter registration easier is not likely, by itself, to make our elections more susceptible to fraud. And while responsible parties on all sides of this debate have acknowledged that in-person voting fraud is uncommon – any allegation of its occurrence is, and will continue to be, taken seriously – and, when necessary, investigated thoroughly. 

Of course, there will always be room for improvement. And we must always create space for thoughtful discussion and debate. That’s what the democratic process is all about – and what the struggle for freedom has long been about ensuring: creating opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions, and – through the casting of their ballots – to signal their priorities and shape their own future. Our nation has worked for, struggled for, and fought for such a system. And, today, with each of us – this fight goes on. The progress we hold dear is in our hands. And the democracy we hold sacred is our responsibility to carry forward.

I can think of no better way to pay tribute to the men and women we celebrate in this Center – and on whose shoulders we stand. Along with the opportunities of citizenship, let us accept its obligations. Let us honor the course of our history. Let us answer the call of destiny. And let us keep faith in the promise of this nation – and in the power of what its people can achieve together.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015