Thank you, Reverend Sharpton – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a privilege to be included, once again, in this important Annual Convention. It’s a pleasure – as always – to be back home in New York City. And it’s an honor to join with so many good friends, committed partners, and current and future leaders in celebrating the memory – and extending the legacy – of one of our nation’s greatest champions for justice: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’d like to thank Martin Luther King III, Representative Rangel, Reverend Sharpton, Dr. Richardson, Vice President Hardy, Executive Director Mallory, and each of the National Action Network’s members and leaders – in addition to our distinguished Keepers of the Dream Award recipients – not only for your steadfast support, but for your prayers, over the last four years. Since becoming Attorney General in 2009, I’ve been proud to count you as allies in the Justice Department’s efforts to strengthen our nation and protect its most vulnerable citizens. I’m grateful for all you’ve done since this organization was founded – more than two decades ago – to help safeguard civil rights; to combat and prevent violent crime; to expand access to educational and job opportunities; and to protect that “most basic” right of American citizenship – the right to vote.
Especially tonight, as our nation marks the 45th anniversary of Dr. King’s tragic and untimely death, it’s fitting that we reflect upon how far this country has since traveled on the road to equality and opportunity. It’s appropriate that we celebrate the remarkable, once-unimaginable progress that so many of us have seen even within our lifetimes. But it’s also important to remind ourselves – and our fellow citizens – that this journey is far from over. And, for all the progress we’ve made, the road ahead still stretches beyond the horizon.
Four and a half decades ago – on what was to be the last night of Dr. King’s life – he stood before a religious gathering in Memphis, Tennessee, and laid out an optimistic but unvarnished vision of what this great country has always stood for – and what he knew it could become. It was a vision inspired by the patriots who, two centuries before, had set in motion the great American experiment – and began building the “more perfect Union” that to this day remains our common pursuit. It was a vision tarnished by the evils of slavery and segregation – only to be reclaimed by generations of brave Americans who risked, and too often gave, their lives to move this country closer to its founding ideals.
Above all, it was a vision of hope – put forward in a moment of doubt – that provided assurance of the brighter future Dr. King realized he might not live to see. In that final speech, he surveyed the challenges facing the Civil Rights Movement. He described threats that had been made against his own life. And he sounded a note of confidence in the face of a gathering storm: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he told the crowd that night. “But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop . . . . And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
The very next day, Dr. King’s life came to a violent end. And, although he was taken from us far too suddenly, and far too soon – he was only 39 years of age – in the decades since then, his vision has endured, and his message has been amplified by millions who continued to follow his example and to walk in his footsteps.
If he could be here with us tonight, I’m confident that Dr. King would be proud of the country he helped to recreate – and the great strides we’ve witnessed over the last 45 years. I’m sure he would be encouraged to see that his work goes on every day – in the advocacy of groups like this one, and the efforts of countless citizens – seemingly ordinary, but all truly extraordinary – who are still fighting to advance this righteous struggle.
At the same time, I know Dr. King would not yet be satisfied. And he would be the first to remind us that – although segregation is no longer the law of the land; although bigotry and discrimination are not as pervasive as they once were; and although a direct beneficiary of his legacy now sits in the Oval Office, and another humbly serves as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States – even today, in 2013, our struggle to bridge divisions, to eradicate violence, and to combat disparities and disenfranchisement remains far from over. And nowhere is this clearer than in the national debate about voting rights that has captured recent headlines from coast to coast.
At the center of this discussion is the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act – a signature achievement of the Civil Rights Movement – which, for nearly half a century, has served as an essential tool for preventing disenfranchisement in our elections. Under an important provision of this Act known as “Section 5,” all or parts of 15 states with documented histories of discrimination are required to obtain approval, from either the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges, for any proposed changes in voting procedures or practices – including redistricting plans, and early voting procedures, and photo identification requirements – some of which may disproportionately impact young, poor, elderly, and minority voters. Since this “preclearance” process went into effect, almost five decades ago, it has prevented these “covered jurisdictions” from altering their voting practices until it has been determined that new proposals have neither a discriminatory purpose nor effect. There has long been a national consensus, a bipartisan consensus, that the Voting Rights Act was not only necessary, but good for our nation.
Since 2010, however, we’ve seen at least 10 lawsuits – more than in the first four decades of the statute’s existence – arguing that Section 5 is no longer constitutional, and that our nation has moved far beyond the challenges that prompted both its passage and its recent, bipartisan Congressional renewal. Let me be clear: while this country has indeed changed, and real progress has been made – we are not yet at the point where the most vital part of the Voting Rights Act can be described as unnecessary or a product of a flawed political process. That’s why today’s Justice Department has vigorously defended Section 5 as an indispensable – and constitutional – tool for eradicating discriminatory electoral processes.
As many of you know, the Supreme Court recently heard a case challenging the constitutionality of this vital measure. As we await the Court’s decision, I want to assure you that – no matter the outcome – the Department of Justice will remain committed to the aggressive and appropriate enforcement of all voting and civil rights protections, including every part of the Voting Rights Act. And we are eager to work with elections administrators and elected leaders throughout the country to consider policies aimed at making more fair – and modernizing – our voting systems; ensuring that all eligible citizens have equal access to the ballot; and preventing and punishing fraudulent voting practices – however rare.
Long lines are unnecessary. Shortened voting periods are unwise and inconsistent with the historic ideal of expanded participation in the process. Recent proposed changes in how electoral votes are apportioned in specific states are blatantly partisan, unfair, divisive, and not worthy of our nation. Let me be clear again: we will not sit by and allow the slow unraveling of an electoral system that so many sacrificed so much to construct.
But I also recognize – as you do – that the Justice Department can’t do it all, and we’ll never be able make the progress we need on our own.
Fortunately, each of us has the power to stand up, and speak out, in defense of this fundamental right. All of us have the responsibility to strengthen the efforts that have been entrusted to us, and the legacy that inspired the National Action Network’s founding. And no one can afford to become complacent – particularly when it comes to protecting the rights, safety, and future, of America’s most vulnerable citizens: our children.
Last December – in Newtown, Connecticut – a horrific mass shooting brought into sharp focus the importance of doing just that. And it spurred legions of policymakers, community leaders, and ordinary citizens to try and address the epidemic of gun violence that afflicts too many neighborhoods every day – and that passes, too often unnoticed, in our cities’ streets.
Unfortunately, this phenomenon is anything but new. Since April 1999 – when two teenagers used guns and homemade bombs to kill a teacher, murder a dozen of their classmates, and wound 21 others at Columbine High School in Colorado – this country has witnessed no fewer than 47 mass shootings involving over 640 victims, more than half of whom were killed. A recent report by the New York County Lawyers’ Association showed that – in a majority of these incidents – the perpetrators used extended or high-capacity magazines.
In order to prevent future tragedies, earlier this year, I joined Vice President Biden and a number of my fellow Cabinet members to develop common-sense recommendations for keeping guns from falling into the wrong hands, keeping our young people safe, and keeping our neighborhoods and schools more secure. Contrary to what a few have said, this comprehensive plan – which President Obama announced in January – is consistent with the Second Amendment, and would not infringe – in any way – on the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners. And it has led the Administration to call on Congress to adopt legislation requiring “universal” background checks, so that a full background check is performed every time someone attempts to buy a gun; to impose tough new penalties on gun traffickers; and to ban high-capacity magazines and military-style assault weapons, updated and stronger than the law that was enacted in 1994.
I’m pleased to note that the Senate will vote on a number of promising gun violence reduction proposals in the coming weeks. And tonight, I’m proud to join the National Action Network and countless Americans in urging both houses of Congress to give each and every one of these measures the timely, individual consideration they deserve. Many have said that these will be “tough” votes, and I understand that the gun lobby will attack some who support reform. But progress is never easy, and taking risks to ensure change is almost always necessary. The American people must stand with and support those who will be with us on this critical issue. The collective voice of those who overwhelmingly support the proposed reforms must overcome the efforts of the well-financed few who stand for a violent and dangerous status quo. Those whose lives have been impacted by gun violence – the victims and the survivors – are depending on us.
In December, just days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I traveled to Newtown. In what were without question the worst moments of my professional life, I walked the halls where those unspeakable acts took place. I met with the first responders and crime scene search officers who arrived at the school just after the first calls came in. And when these brave men and women asked me, with broken hearts and tear-streamed faces, to do whatever I could to prevent such a thing from happening again – I told them I would not rest until we had secured the common-sense changes that they and those 26 angels deserved.
I promised them I would never forget – just as I know you have not forgotten. On this, of all nights, let us dedicate ourselves, as Dr. King would expect us to do, to this new struggle.
In addition to calling for Congressional action, agencies across the Administration are implementing 23 executive actions that President Obama announced in order to provide federal and local officials with the resources and information needed to safeguard our citizens, to develop plans for making schools more secure, and to increase access to mental health services for those who need them. These efforts are currently under way, and I’m hopeful that they’ll help to prevent violence and save lives. But all of this is only the beginning.
More broadly, we must also move to improve our nation’s criminal justice system – and to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness at every level. We’re providing increased support for programs offering quality legal representation to those who cannot afford it, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright – a landmark ruling, handed down 50 years ago last month, which held that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney.
We’re also asking larger questions about the mechanisms of our criminal justice system as a whole – and, where appropriate, exploring ways to recalibrate this system and ensure that it’s as fair and effective as possible.
Already, this urgent need has driven the Administration to advocate – successfully – for the elimination of the unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. As we speak, it is propelling us to become both smarter and tougher on crime by facilitating more effective policing at the state and local levels; broadening the impact of innovative prevention, intervention, enforcement, and reentry programs; using intelligence-based strategies to target federal law enforcement resources and assistance to the areas where they’re most needed; and seeking new ways to help crime victims – especially victims of sexual assault – to make their lives whole again.
Our reform efforts are also driving us to engage allies like the Department of Education – and others – to confront the “school-to-prison pipeline” that transforms too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system. They are informing essential programs like the Department’s Defending Childhood Initiative and the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention – which are helping to rally federal leaders, state officials, private organizations, and community groups to examine how we can better understand, address, and prevent youth exposure to violence – as victims or as witnesses. And these efforts are inspiring us to forge new partnerships like the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – a group I first convened in 2011, which brings together leaders from 20 federal agencies to address barriers that formerly incarcerated individuals face in rejoining their communities, to promote best practices, and to confront these and related issues as more than just criminal justice problems.
The sheer number of Americans contending with these challenges is staggering. Well over two million people are currently behind bars in this country. As a nation we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. One in 28 children has a parent in prison. For African American children, this ratio is roughly 1 in 9. In total, approximately 700,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year. Nine to 10 million more cycle through local jails. And 40 percent of former federal prisoners – along with more than 60 percent of former state prisoners – are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release.
Now, there’s no question that incarceration has a role to play in our criminal justice system. But there’s also no denying that widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels imposes a significant economic burden – totaling nearly $83 billion in 2009 alone – along with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate. As a nation – and as a people – we pay a high price whenever our criminal justice policies fall short of fairly delivering outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep the American people safe, and ensure that those who pay their debts to society have the chance to become productive, law-abiding citizens.
This is why – as we look toward the future – we must promote public safety and deterrence while at the same time ensuring efficiency and fairness. I am concerned by a troubling report released by the United States Sentencing Commission in February, which indicates that – in recent years – black male offenders have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. The Department of Justice is determined to continue working alongside Congressional leaders, judges, law enforcement officials, and independent groups – like the American Bar Association – to study the unintended collateral consequences of certain convictions; to address unwarranted sentencing disparities; and – where appropriate – to explore ways to give judges more flexibility in determining certain sentences. Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long for no good law enforcement reason. It is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our criminal justice system. Statutes passed by legislatures that mandate sentences, irrespective of the unique facts of an individual case, too often bear no relation to the conduct at issue, breed disrespect for the system, and are ultimately counterproductive. It is time to examine our systems and determine what truly works. We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to rehabilitate, and to deter – and not simply to warehouse and forget.
I remain hopeful about what my colleagues and I will be able to achieve in the months and years ahead – as long as we can count on the strong support, and steadfast partnership, of leaders like all of you. As I look around this crowd – of friends, allies, and distinguished award recipients and despite the frustrations of the moment, and the obstacles ahead, I can’t help but feel confident in our ability to move forward together – and to build upon the legacy of the icon who was taken from us 45 years ago tonight.
Dr. King was a singular figure in our history, and his impact on the world we live in today would be difficult to overstate. But the struggle that came to define his life was anything but unique.
This struggle is reflected in the stories of selflessness – and sacrifice – that are woven throughout our history. These stories remind us that this nation was built, and it continues to be improved, by generations of Americans – young and old, from all backgrounds and walks of life – like those in this room tonight. Ultimately, these stories – and the legacy of progress that is our common inheritance – are founded on a hope as old as our Republic, and as contemporary as this new century: that – here and now – we have the power not merely to overcome --- but to come together and to confront the challenges of our time. We have the strength to bear one another up, and push one another forward, in our continuing march down the road to equality and justice. And we have the solemn responsibility – and the rare opportunity – not just to maintain a steady course, but to help realize the vision of a King whose example still guides us; whose words still inspire us; and whose dream will someday lead us to walk – together – into the Promised Land.
May God continue to bless our journey. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.