Thank you, President [Wayne] Frederick, for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It is a pleasure to be here on the beautiful and historic campus of Howard University – one of our nation’s great historically black institutions of higher learning, and home to generations of leaders and role models. I’d like to thank the Howard University Color Guard for being a part of this celebration, and Bert Cross II for that exceptional rendition of the national anthem. I also want to recognize Ambassador [Andrew] Young – a tireless advocate for the rights of all Americans and a proud graduate of this university. And I want to thank every member of the Gay Men’s Chorus, who will share their talents with us later this morning, for helping to make this event so special.
I am also mindful, as we gather today, of the leader we lost this past Friday. John Seigenthaler was a passionate journalist, a lifelong defender of the First Amendment, and a fierce civil rights advocate. He was a top aide to my predecessor as Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, and later served as his pallbearer. He risked his life alongside the Freedom Riders and called forcefully for civil rights protections at a time when most Southern journalists turned a blind eye. He was a remarkable man and a singular voice for the cause of justice; a guiding light and an inspiration to many – including me. I count myself as extremely fortunate to have known John Seigenthaler, and extend my heartfelt condolences to his family. He will be dearly missed. But his critical work goes on.
It’s a privilege to be among so many distinguished guests, including fellow members of the President’s Cabinet; Howard faculty and administrators; accomplished trailblazers in the fight for civil rights; and young people who will carry on the work we commemorate – and build on the singular achievement we celebrate – here today.
Half a century ago this month – with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others at his side – President Lyndon Johnson marked an inflection point in a struggle that predated our Republic when he signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a struggle that had begun more than three centuries earlier, in 1619, with the arrival of roughly 20 captive Africans in Jamestown, Virginia. And it continued through the expanding colonization of North America.
By 1763, the colonial population included roughly 300,000 Africans, the overwhelming majority of whom were slaves. Yet it wasn’t until a century later that our greatest president issued an Emancipation Proclamation providing a legal framework for the eventual release of many slaves – and secured the Thirteenth Amendment, which finally struck this evil from our Constitution. Even then, Jim Crow laws and other measures were engineered to keep millions of African-Americans effectively in bondage, slavery by another name, for a century more. And intimidation and violence were routinely employed to prevent them from becoming educated, to keep them from voting, and to stop them from mixing with the white majority.
Finally, 60 years ago this May, when Chief Justice Earl Warren led a unanimous Supreme Court to declare, in Brown v. Board of Education, that segregation was unconstitutional, our nation took an important step to reconcile not only two races, but two histories – two Americas – that had been intensely separate, and profoundly unequal, since long before the American Revolution. And ten long years after that – as long-simmering injustice gave way to activism and principled action – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was adopted to forever enshrine American equality into American law.
This historic measure barred discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. It instituted critical employment protections. It outlawed discrimination in public accommodations, including schools and workplaces, and prohibited unequal application of voter requirements. In so doing, it greatly expanded the mandate of the Department’s Civil Rights Division, which to this day is committed to enforcing the Civil Rights Act and upholding the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans – particularly society’s most vulnerable members. The new statute also created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as well as the Community Relations Service, which assists vulnerable populations and promotes healing in times of disorder and distress.
Securing this law was an extraordinary undertaking – born of a consensus wrought by decades of hard work and profound sacrifice. It required two great presidents – John F. Kennedy, who called on us to confront a moral crisis and fulfill a national promise; and Lyndon Johnson, who took action, after President Kennedy’s assassination, to make that promise real. It required a Congress with the fortitude to stand up to those who defended a way of life founded on bigotry and oppression. It required leaders of conviction – from Medgar Evers to Dr. King; from John Lewis to Andrew Young – who were willing to risk, and even to give, their lives in order that others might live free. And most of all, it required men, women, and even children of tremendous courage – and unwavering faith – to endure the unendurable and advance the cause of justice.
These are the heroes whose legacy we celebrate on this milestone anniversary. These are the pioneers on whose shoulders we now stand. And these are the trailblazers to whom we pay grateful tribute this morning.
Of course, like all who are old enough to remember those days – when northern cities erupted and Mississippi burned – I will never forget the turmoil, and the violence, that characterized the Civil Rights Era. I will never forget watching, on a black-and-white television in my childhood home in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York, as countless people – rich and poor, black and white, famous and unknown – braved dogs and fire hoses, billy clubs and baseball bats, bullets and bombs, in order to secure the rights to which every American is entitled.
These extraordinary citizens streamed into Birmingham and marched on Washington. They stood up in Little Rock and sat-in in Greensboro. They faced riots in Oxford and walked through a schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa. They dared, during America’s “long night of racial injustice,” to dream of a more equal society. And they risked everything they had to make it so.
This was the fight that, half a century ago, brought nearly a thousand students to Mississippi for a voter registration campaign called Freedom Summer – as the battle for civil rights was waged in the halls of Congress and thundered across the streets of America. Inch by inch, the nation as a whole moved slowly forward towards equality. But Mississippi and other states continued to stand in stubborn, racist opposition. Registrar offices instituted voting tests and other measures that made it almost impossible for black men and women to go to the polls and vote. Citizens – and even sworn police officers – fought racial equality and threatened African Americans who dared step into voting booths. Newspapers published the names of registered black voters so they could be targeted – and terrorized – by those who harbored hatred. Yet hundreds of young people came to Mississippi – in defiance of these threats and in the face of deadly violence – to help extend our democracy’s “most basic right” to people of color.
In the ten weeks of Freedom Summer, more than 65 buildings were bombed or burned. Hundreds of civil rights workers were beaten and arrested. And three brave young men – Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner – were brutally murdered.
Yet violence did not send the activists running, as its perpetrators had hoped. Instead, it galvanized them – and the nation. More and more brave Americans joined the cause – both residents of these communities and students of all races from across the country. When they saw that African-Americans were being deprived of quality educational opportunities, they established Freedom Schools to teach black history, to facilitate discussion, and to encourage political activism.
These young people devoted themselves to the hope – as Michael Schwerner’s widow, Rita, once wrote – that they could pass on to the next generation “a world containing more respect for the dignity and worth of all men than that world which was willed to us.” The senseless murders of Rita’s husband and his two colleagues, one black and one white, in a case that became known as Mississippi Burning, and which remains open to this day – captured headlines and sparked outrage across the country. Their tragic deaths moved public opinion, spurred cautious politicians to take long-overdue action, and intensified support for the Civil Rights Act. But their efforts also made possible the Voting Rights Act of 1965; the Fair Housing Act of 1968; and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, along with countless other movements for progress. And although Michael and Rita Schwerner never had the chance to have children of their own, their work – and the efforts of their friends and fellows – left a better world for me, for my children, and for millions more.
As we mark this anniversary, I am especially mindful that, without the Civil Rights Act, the protections it codified, or the monumental progress that followed, few of us would be here this morning. And without the sacrifices of countless activists and citizens, I would not stand before you as Attorney General of the United States, proudly serving in the Administration of our first African-American President.
I am just as mindful that none of this progress was preordained. We know from our history that advances toward equality and inclusion have never been inevitable. Every step forward has been hard-won. The words of our founding documents were not automatically imbued with the force of law. And our nation’s future continues to be defined, and its destiny determined, by men and women of both character and conviction; by courageous people who are unafraid to stand up for what they know to be right; and by patriots who never shrink from the responsibility to draw this country ever closer to its highest ideals.
Like you, my colleagues – at every level of today’s Department of Justice – and I are determined to do everything in our power to further these efforts, to protect and expand the work of those who have gone before, and to extend America’s promise to new generations and populations that have been too long disenfranchised, overlooked, and oppressed. Half a century after its passage, the Civil Rights Act continues to provide an arsenal of singularly useful tools in waging this struggle. And as we speak, the Justice Department is using provisions of this important law both aggressively – and innovatively – to confront civil rights challenges old and new.
Earlier this year, our Civil Rights Division relied on the 1964 Act to reach a $99 million employment discrimination settlement with the New York City Fire Department – the largest such employment settlement to date – ensuring that all applicants can fairly compete for jobs, and that New Yorkers are protected by the best-qualified among them. In 2012, the Department used provisions of the Act to address harassment against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in a Minnesota school district, establishing a model for other districts to follow. We are currently employing other provisions to fight for gender equality in education and in the workplace. And we’re finding that, in a variety of cases and circumstances – from ensuring that schools provide safe and equal opportunities to all of our sons and daughters, to guaranteeing access to state courts for those with limited English proficiency – the Civil Rights Act offers powerful enforcement authorities to address contemporary challenges and safeguard vulnerable people.
Beyond the Act itself, the Justice Department has worked with our partners throughout the Administration – most notably the Department of Education, led by Secretary Arne Duncan, and the Department of Labor, led by Secretary Tom Perez, who not long ago led – and, in fact, helped to revive – our own Civil Rights Division, ushering in what I’m confident will be considered an era of historic achievement for the Division. Alongside these other agencies, we have worked hard to build on the spirit of the law by winning new legislation – and judicial rulings – that extend the promise of equality to others. We’ve secured additional protections for women, Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians, and people with disabilities. And we’ve achieved historic progress in ensuring the civil rights of LGBT individuals across the country – so they can finally receive the equal opportunities, equal protection, and equal treatment they deserve.
All of this is important, life-changing work. It speaks to the timelessness of the Civil Rights Act itself, the continuing relevance of its core provisions, and the need to keep expanding upon the safeguards it provides. But it also shows that our work is far from over. Significant challenges remain before us. And each one of us – every American – has a great deal more to do.
Although we can be proud of the progress that’s been made even within our lifetimes, we cannot accept these advances as an indication that our work is complete, that our long journey has been successfully concluded. Progress is not an end; it is a measure of effort and of commitment. As we speak, in far too many neighborhoods, far too many people of color and far too many LGBT individuals are denied credit and housing. In the workplace, far too many women are deprived of the opportunity to perform equal work for equal pay, earning on average only 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues. In our education system, students of color are far more likely than white children to attend poorly-funded schools. In the criminal justice system, African-American men are routinely subjected to sentences averaging 20 percent longer than those served by white men convicted of similar crimes. And when it comes to our most treasured democratic institutions, many vulnerable populations – including young people, the elderly, and communities of color – are now facing a range of new restrictions, leveled under the dubious guise of voter fraud prevention, that create significant barriers to the ballot box.
If these and other conditions – from lower social and economic mobility, to reduced educational opportunities, to unequal justice and unfair outcomes – were felt so acutely by the majority of Americans, I believe our national dialogue, and our responses to these problems, would be very different. As it stands, our society is not yet colorblind; nor should it be, given the disparities that still afflict and divide us. We must be color brave and must never forget that all are made better and more prosperous if all are given equal opportunities.
That’s why, today – together – we must resolve once again to act not out of self-interest, but out of national interest. We must take into account not only the considerable steps forward we’ve seen over the last 50 years, but the entirety of the experience that people of color have faced. And we must never hesitate to confront the fact, the undeniable truth, that in too many places across this nation that I love – and have served throughout my life – that the echoes of injustices stretching back nearly four centuries continue to reverberate. These echoes from times past are still heard by too many.
In addressing these lingering effects, there is a need for personal responsibility. Too many individuals act in ways that are negligent or counterproductive. But there is also a need for societal responsibility; for collective engagement and common effort. We must be willing to acknowledge the problems we face, to talk frankly about inequality, and to examine its causes and its impacts and, most importantly, to act to eradicate it. And we must look at our great nation, and reflect on its history, with clarity and with honesty – with open eyes and deep understanding of who we have been, who we aspire to be, and who we are today.
This is the key to perfecting our Union – and formulating policies that will lead to a better, brighter future for all of our citizens. This is what drives the Obama Administration’s sweeping efforts to ensure that every American has the chance to succeed based on his or her skills, talent, and potential – not by the circumstances of their birth. But this is something we’ll never be able to do on our own.
Today, I am calling on Congress to renew the spirit of the Civil Rights Act – by updating fair housing and lending laws to address discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status; by strengthening workplace protections to prohibit pay discrimination against women and to finally end discrimination against LGBT individuals; by ensuring equal access to education and promoting nondiscriminatory learning environments; and by passing updated voting rights legislation that will enable every voter, in every jurisdiction, to exercise – unencumbered – the rights that so many have fought and died to defend.
After all, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an attempt – and a highly successful one – to confront fundamental questions that had bedeviled this nation since its inception, and that justifiably generate controversy even today. This morning, we are reminded that carrying on this work; advancing the cause of justice; and ensuring the civil and human rights of every person – no matter where they come from, who they are, or who they love – continues to constitute our most solemn obligation.
The true greatness of this country lies in our limitless capacity for innovation and invention – for rebirth and renewal; for forging greater societies and reaching new frontiers. As a people, we have never been content to tie ourselves to an unjust status quo, no matter how many individuals may find it acceptable. We challenge; we question; we struggle; we quarrel. We bind ourselves to the ongoing quest for a better future. And ultimately, we move forward together – as one nation, indivisible – driven by our pursuit of a more perfect Union and determined, come what may, to achieve it.
That, at its core, is what defines us as Americans: a people born of revolution and tested by civil war. A nation founded on equality but built by those in chains. A country first imagined, centuries ago, by imperfect people driven by a near-perfect vision – a vision conceived by patriots who dared to reach beyond themselves and defended later by activists who fought for equal justice – and who challenge us, even today, to make this promise real.
To them – as to generations yet to come – we owe our best efforts and our deepest resolve. We must take up this challenge and implement this vision. And we must build, in their honor, a world that is worthy of their passion, their sacrifice, and their humanity.
Like you, I have no illusions that this task will be easy. But as I look around this crowd today – of passionate men and women, dedicated to truth and devoted to service – I am confident of our ability to reach that promised land. I thank you for your commitment to progress and to the pursuit of justice. And I look forward to all that we must, and will, accomplish in the months and years ahead. As a nation, as the beloved community, as a united people, we shall overcome.