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Attorney General Holder Delivers Remarks at a Ceremony Commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Robert F. Kennedy Main Justice Building


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery 

Thank you, Sally [Yates], for those kind words – and thank you all for being here.  It’s a pleasure to stand with you today.  And it’s a great privilege to share the stage with so many good friends and valued colleagues.

I’d particularly like to thank Assistant Attorney General [Lee] Lofthus, and his colleagues in the Justice Management Division, for all that they’ve done to make this event possible. 

 And I want to thank all of you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to join us at this special observance – and for your daily efforts, which lend such deep meaning to the occasion we’ve gathered to celebrate.

It was eight decades ago that the U.S. Department of Justice assumed permanent residence in this beautiful building – after many years in transition – and opened a new chapter in both the history of this department and our efforts to protect the nation.  At the time this building was first occupied – in September, 1934 – the country faced a host of obstacles and challenges that must have seemed virtually insurmountable at the time. 

Franklin Roosevelt had taken office as President just a year before, when the Great Depression was near its height.  Deprivation – and grinding poverty – remained realities for far too many across the nation.  Despicable Jim Crow laws, pervasive discrimination, and widespread race-motivated violence robbed countless men and women of their most basic civil rights – and even, in some cases, their lives.  Organized crime flourished in certain urban centers, threatening to undermine the rule of law.  And racketeering and fraud drained resources from an economy that was struggling to recover from the largest financial crisis in our history. 

In the face of this adversity, our predecessors walked through these doors for the very first time.  They took up their positions in the very same offices we occupy today.  And they immediately set to work.

Then – as today – the challenges America faced demanded the very best from some of the most skilled and dedicated public servants in the country. 

And in the decades since – through years of challenge and consequence; in times of peace and war, surplus and austerity – generations of passionate attorneys, paralegals, law enforcement agents, and support staff, fueled by their love of this great country and driven by the desire to serve, have passed through this building in unbroken succession. 

Nearly four decades ago, I was proud to be one of them – as I reported to work for my “dream job” as a line attorney in the newly-formed Public Integrity Section.  Although that first job was not located in this building, I remember being struck – whenever I visited Main Justice – by the power of the law, and the honor of public service, as conveyed in its remarkable architecture and artwork.  From the intricacy of the building’s façade, to the interesting – and attention-grabbing – murals in the Library; from the artwork, and the historic portraits, that adorn the fifth floor, to the beautiful sculptures, depicting the Spirit of Justice and the Majesty of Justice, here in the Great Hall. 

This Great Hall itself, of course, speaks to the widely-varied history of this structure.  Behind the wall to my right lies a reinforced bank vault.  And along both sides of this Hall are teller windows through which Justice Department employees were once paid in cash. 

But beyond the building itself, I have always been moved by the stories I’ve heard – and witnessed – of countless men and women whose footsteps once echoed in these halls.  They remind us not only of the indelible marks that our predecessors have left on the fabric of this nation, but the proud lineage with which each of us is now entrusted. 

Since the days of my most accomplished predecessor as Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy – for whom this building was named in 2001 – the Department of Justice has been a fierce protector of the civil rights of all Americans, standing squarely on the side of those who believe in the founding promise of equal justice under law. 

During the 1970s, another Attorney General, Elliot Richardson – whose portrait now hangs alongside Robert Kennedy’s in my conference room – reaffirmed the independence and integrity of this department by refusing to fire the special prosecutor tasked with investigating President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in.  And under Attorney General Edward Levi – who led this department when I first joined it, during the Ford Administration, and who became a personal hero of mine – we began the hard work of winning back the trust of the American people, as well as the public confidence that must stand at the heart of our daily efforts. 

Over the years, I have had the great honor of serving this department in a number of capacities.  I have reported to work by Metro and by motorcade. 

And I’ve been struck by the enduring truth, and the stirring reminder, that’s inscribed on the exterior of this building, facing Pennsylvania Avenue: that “the place of justice is a hallowed place” – hallowed not by beautiful architecture; by stone, aluminum, and steel – but by the contributions and the sacrifices of those who serve here.  Hallowed by the examples, and the memories, of those who walked these halls before us, and whose legacies we now strive to uphold.  And hallowed by the commitment that has shaped this institution – and each of our lives – from the moment we first pledged ourselves to the protection of the American people: not merely to win convictions, but to pursue the cause of justice. 

 To do only that which is right.  And to leave to those who will succeed us in this effort a department that is even better, even stronger, and even more effective than the one we inherited. 

I am proud to say that, thanks to your hard work, our endeavors have been defined by real and lasting progress over the last six years.  Despite significant obstacles, this period has been marked by significant – and, in some cases, historic – achievement in the protection of civil rights, the advancement of social justice, and the expansion of opportunity for everyone in this country.

From our work to strengthen America’s criminal justice system, through the Smart on Crime initiative, to our efforts to combat hate crimes; from our ongoing struggle to ensure equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters, to our commitment to protecting the most sacred of American rights – the right to vote – we can all be deeply proud of what we have accomplished together, and the work that’s underway, during our stewardship of this institution. 

Thanks to the leadership and engagement of passionate men and women like you, I am confident that we will continue to build on this progress in the days ahead.  We will keep striving to honor the contributions of those who have gone before us. 

And we will never stop fighting to extend our country’s long march toward equality and justice for all – using the values that define us, and the principles we celebrate today, to light the way forward. 

As you know, my career of service to this department will soon draw to a close.  And although my individual path will lead me in a new direction, I will always look back with tremendous pride on all that we have accomplished together. 

I know the record we’ve established will only grow stronger under the leadership of our new Deputy Attorney General – and our next Attorney General – thanks to the tireless work of colleagues like all of you.  And I want you to know that, no matter what the next chapter may hold for me, I will never stop seeking ways to contribute to the work we must continue – and the effort that has become the cause of my life. 

For nearly four decades, this place has been my home.  It has been the greatest honor of my professional life to share this time with you, to serve alongside you, and to fulfill the public trust our fellow citizens have bestowed.  I am proud to join you today in commemorating 80 years of progress in these hallowed halls.  And I look forward to all that will surely be achieved over the years to come – as we carry on the pursuit of a more perfect Union, and the "beloved community," that must always bind us together. 

Thank you all – and please keep up the great work that has always defined those who have had the privilege and responsibility to grace these halls. 

Updated August 18, 2015