Skip to main content

Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at theProtecting Civil Rights Symposium


Boston, MA
United States

Thank you, Carmen, for those kind words; for your outstanding leadership as United States Attorney, and as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee; and for all that you and your staff have done to bring us together to discuss – and to address – some of the most critical civil rights issues facing our nation.

It’s a pleasure to be back in Boston – and a privilege to join with so many friends, colleagues, attorneys, advocates, military service members, law enforcement officials, and community leaders in exploring strategies for taking our collective work to a new level. I’d particularly like to thank Theodore Landsmark – along with my friend, Cheryl Brown Henderson – for lending their voices to this important dialogue. And I’d like to thank each of our expert panelists and breakout session leaders for sharing their unique perspectives with us today.

This symposium presents a chance to reflect upon the progress that’s been made in recent years to honor our country’s most basic principles – of inclusion, opportunity, equal treatment, and fair representation. It’s also an important opportunity to consider the work that’s currently underway – here in Boston and across the country – and to seek out innovative strategies for building on the record of achievement that many of you have helped to establish.

I especially am proud of the work that Carmen and her team are leading. With the creation of the Civil Rights Enforcement Team, this office has strengthened its ability to identify, and respond to, civil rights violations in every corner of this Commonwealth. Especially over the past three years, you’ve led the way in protecting the citizens we are privileged to serve, and in promoting tolerance and fairness. And you’ve called on your partners – in both the public and private sectors – to remember that, for all that’s been done throughout our history to expand core rights, freedoms, and opportunities to include people of color, women, LGBT individuals, and so many others – our nation still has more to do, and further to go. Taking the next steps forward – and carrying this legacy of progress into the future – is up to each and every one of us.

This enduring message was shared – on this very date, nearly half a century ago – by one of this state’s favorite sons, and my most famous predecessor, Robert Kennedy – when he testified before a House of Representatives committee on the urgency of passing the Civil Rights Act of 1963. In an age defined by sit-ins and marches – as Americans of all races and backgrounds came together, to confront grave dangers and to overturn an unjust status quo – Attorney General Kennedy assured Congressional leaders that, already, much had been done to help secure civil rights for all. “But,” he said, “much more must be done – both because the American people are clearly demanding it and because, by any moral standard, it is right.”

Although exactly 49 years have passed since the day these words were spoken, they remain as relevant – and as true – as ever. Here in Boston, and all across our country, it’s impossible to ignore the growing concerns from citizens who feel – often for the first time in their lives – that the hard-won progress of the Civil Rights era has come under renewed threat. Even in America’s most vibrant cities, too many neighborhoods continue to be afflicted by the same disparities, divisions, and problems that – decades ago – so many struggled, sacrificed, fought, and even died to address.

During my time as a prosecutor, judge, Deputy Attorney General, and now Attorney General, I’ve seen all too clearly that the sacred ideal of “liberty and justice for all” has yet to be fully realized. And one need only look at the Justice Department’s ongoing – and expanding – civil rights enforcement efforts to see how vital this work continues to be – even today, in 2012.

Over the last three years – under the outstanding leadership of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez – our Civil Rights Division has been busier than ever. We’ve led the way in combating bias, intimidation, and violence – filing more criminal civil rights cases than ever before, including record numbers of police misconduct, hate crimes, and human trafficking cases. We’ve engaged with attorneys, investigators, and federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement partners to promote and ensure the highest standards of integrity and professionalism across our nation’s law enforcement community. And we’ve established a remarkable record of achievement in ensuring that the rights of all Americans are protected – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our voting booths and our immigrant communities.

I know that many of you – along with the rest of the nation – have been closely following the case that led to yesterday’s decision, by the Supreme Court, to strike down major provisions of an Arizona law that would have effectively criminalized unlawful status in that state. While I’m pleased that the Court confirmed the serious constitutional questions we raised about this law, I do remain concerned about the law’s potential impact – and, specifically, about the requirement for law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of any person lawfully stopped or detained when they have reason to suspect that the person is here unlawfully. Above all, I want to assure communities – in Arizona and around the country – that the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously enforce federal prohibitions against racial and ethnic discrimination.  We are committed – as President Obama stated yesterday – to “uphold[ing] our tradition as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.” And we’ll continue to take every possibly step – and utilize every available resource – to prevent and combat any and all forms of discrimination


One area where we’ve already proven this is in our efforts to ensure fairness in our housing and lending markets. By developing groundbreaking initiatives – and dedicating new resources – we’re combating predatory and discriminatory practices like never before. We’re working to promote fair lending and treatment for all borrowers, and have established important protections for communities of color, military service members and veterans, and other vulnerable populations that – too often – have been targeted and victimized. In fact, just last year, the Civil Rights Division’s Fair Lending Unit settled or filed a record number of cases – including the largest fair lending settlement in history, totaling more than $330 million – to hold financial institutions accountable for discriminating against African and Hispanic Americans.

Beyond these efforts, the Department has taken decisive action to prevent and combat hate crimes, utilizing a range of new tools and authorities to investigate and prosecute them. Last year alone, we obtained more convictions for defendants charged with hate crimes than any other year in more than a decade. Over the past three fiscal years, we prosecuted 35 percent more hate crime cases than during the preceding three-year period. And thanks to new protections included in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – which President Obama signed into law in 2009 – we’ve strengthened our ability to achieve justice on behalf of all those who are victimized simply because of who they are – including those who are targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In conjunction with these efforts, the Department also has enhanced our collaboration with a wide range of allies – including federal agencies like the Department of Education – to coordinate significant, Administration-wide initiatives to combat bullying. By forging partnerships with educators, school administrators, community leaders, faith-based organizations, researchers, and law enforcement officials, we are exploring new ways to reach out to students who feel unsafe or have been victimized. And we are working to engage entire communities in promoting healthy environments for all of our nation’s young people.

At the same time, we’re dedicated to working harder than ever to combat the despicable practice of human trafficking. As a result of the anti-trafficking training programs that the Justice Department has helped to create – and thanks to our reinvigorated partnerships with state, local, and international authorities – we’ve seen record numbers of human trafficking cases over the last three years, including a rise of more than 30 percent in the number of forced labor and adult sex trafficking prosecutions. These successes have sent a strong message, and a clear warning – that those who commit these offenses will be stopped; they will be held accountable; and they will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

In this work, and in all of our daily efforts, the men and women serving in our Civil Rights Division – and in our U.S. Attorneys’ Offices nationwide – are driven by three guiding principles in their enforcement efforts: the need to expand opportunity and access for every citizen; to ensure the effective infrastructure of our democracy; and to safeguard the most vulnerable among us from violence, exploitation, and discrimination. I am proud of all that the Department has done to honor and extend the legacy of achievement that our predecessors have established. Nowhere is this more clear than in our work to safeguard the single most fundamental, and most powerful, right of American citizenship: the right to vote .

Over the last 18 months, we’ve seen an alarming rise in voting-related measures at the state level, some of which could make it extremely difficult for many eligible voters to cast ballots this year. In response, the Justice Department has initiated careful, thorough, and independent reviews of a number of these proposed changes – examining redistricting plans in certain jurisdictions, as well as early voting procedures, photo identification requirements, and changes affecting third party registration organizations – in order to guard against disenfranchisement and to ensure compliance with critical laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In addition to our enforcement of this important measure , we’re also working hand-in-hand with several jurisdictions – through outreach and education – to ensure consistent compliance with its provisions. We’re vigorously defending its constitutionality in court. And we’re fighting to protect the voting rights of Americans living abroad, citizens with disabilities, language minorities, and U.S. service members and veterans. During the 2010 election cycle, the Civil Rights Division obtained court orders, court-approved consent decrees, or out-of-court agreements in 14 jurisdictions, which ensured that thousands of military and overseas voters had the opportunity to vote and to have that vote counted.  And in just the past four months, we've filed three different lawsuits – in Alabama, Wisconsin, and California – to protect the voting rights of service members and overseas citizens.

As we build on these vital efforts – and all of the Civil Rights Division’s essential work – I believe it’s clear – despite the fiscal constraints and nearly unprecedented budgetary challenges we face – that the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting the rights and freedoms of every citizen has never been stronger. For me – both personally and professionally – our record of achievement is a source of great pride. But I also recognize that, for all that we’ve accomplished, we cannot yet be satisfied.

Of course, all of you are here today because you already know what we’re up against – and you understand what’s at stake. So, as you move through this program, I ask that you remember Robert Kennedy’s enduring words, and bear in mind that – although no one can doubt that we’ve come a long way together – the struggle for civil rights is far from over. Our nation’s journey is not yet complete. And the responsibility to carry these efforts into the future now rests with each of us.

Thank you, once again, for your ongoing commitment to this work. I look forward to where you must – and will – help to lead this great nation from here.

Updated August 18, 2015