Justice News

Attorney General Holder Reaffirms Commitment to Voting Rights in Speech to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery Marches
Selma, AL
United States
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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Remarks as prepared for delivery 

Thank you, Reverend [Leodis] Strong, for that kind introduction.  It is a pleasure to be here on this important day, and a privilege to join so many committed public servants, civil rights pioneers, and passionate citizens as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday—and rededicate ourselves to the ongoing fight for civil rights and social justice.

It is a special and humbling honor to speak at this historic chapel—where, 50 years ago, men and women of good conscience and strong will met to advance a cause that was written into our founding documents, and etched into our highest ideals.  Within these walls, they spoke of equality, of opportunity, of justice – and of promises unkept.  They made brave and perilous plans to realize a dream too long deferred.  And they joined together, as one community, to advance the promise of a nation – and to make that promise real.

They did this at a time of great and abiding uncertainty; of deep and dangerous threats.  In the years prior, Freedom Riders testing anti-segregation laws had been attacked by angry mobs; Vivian Malone –who would later become my sister-in-law – had braved Governor George Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door to integrate the University of Alabama; Medgar Evers had been murdered outside his home; and four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair—had been killed by the blast of a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church, less than a hundred miles north of here, while attending a service titled “The Love that Forgives.”  These contemporary atrocities rested upon the fate of countless and unnamed others who had for centuries been subjected to a state-sponsored regime of intimidation and terror.  And although the Supreme Court had struck down segregation laws more than a decade earlier, innumerable communities continued to enforce laws that kept African Americans entirely separate and emphatically unequal.  Make no mistake: their decision to move forward was the height of bravery.

Nowhere was this discrimination more insidious than in the barriers African Americans faced when attempting to cast a ballot.  Literacy tests, imposed at the discretion of white officials, kept many black individuals from registering to vote; poll taxes – paying to get the necessary documents to vote – were levied against those who did; and lists of African Americans who overcame obstacles to registration were made public, so that some white citizens could identify, intimidate, and often violently suppress black voters.  Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had given African-American men and women historic protections, without adequate political representation and without real political power, people of color continued to be marginalized, stigmatized, brutalized, and denied their very humanity.

It was under those circumstances that civil rights leaders, courageous advocates, and ordinary citizens who were “sick and tired of being sick and tired” gathered here, in Selma—a town where only two percent of African Americans were registered to vote, in a county in which racist practices were enforced by a notoriously brutal sheriff now consigned to the place where all of his kind, from whatever era, ultimately end, and in a state where the governor had called for “segregation forever.”  Spurred by the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson – an unarmed young black man – an earlier movement began and citizens began a march from Selma to Montgomery, across a bridge that was named for a former Alabama Senator, Confederate General and Grand Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan.  It was a march along a road that promised to be neither smooth nor straight; a road that led through difficult terrain; a road that had been traveled by generations whose footsteps still echo through history. 

They marched through the abandonment of Reconstruction; marched through the injustice of Plessy v. Ferguson; marched through the era of slavery by another name, and the dark days of Jim Crow; marched past – but always saw – peculiar institutions and that strange, horrific fruit.  They were met with suspicion, with hostility, and with hatred.  And still, they marched on.

Though their feet were tired, their souls were rested.  Though their bodies ached, their will was strong.  Though these nonviolent activists were driven back by violent resistance—by Alabama law enforcement officers wielding whips and billy clubs, bullets and bare fists—they refused to give up, give out, or give in.  Still, they marched on.  And, with the relentless drumbeat of their footsteps, they awoke the conscience of the nation, and bent the arc of the moral universe a little further towards justice.

Their courage and their sacrifice led a dubious Congress and a great President to work with my predecessor, Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, to enshrine into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965—one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in American history.  And over the last six years, as Attorney General of the United States, I have had the duty and the privilege—the responsibility and the sacred honor—of enforcing and defending this law—and the legacy of all those who made it – and me – possible.  I am proud to say that the Department of Justice I lead has aggressively worked to safeguard the right to vote, and to extend its promise to every eligible voter.

And yet, it has been clear in recent years that fair and free access to the franchise is still, in some areas, under siege.  Shortly after the historic election of President Obama in 2008, numerous states and jurisdictions attempted to impose rules and laws that had the effect of restricting Americans’ opportunities to vote—particularly, and disproportionately, communities of color.  And in 2013, a narrowly divided and profoundly flawed Supreme Court ruling undermined Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and dealt a serious blow to a cornerstone of American civil rights law.

In its majority opinion, the Supreme Court wrote that the situation in covered regions had “changed dramatically,” and that, because of gains made particularly by African Americans since the Voting Rights Act went into effect, vital pre-clearance protections that had required federal review of changes to voting procedures in regions with a history of discrimination should no longer be applied.  But as Justice Ginsburg wrote in her striking dissent, “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work…is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Let me be clear: while the Court’s decision removed one of the Justice Department’s most effective tools, we remain undaunted and undeterred in our pursuit of a meaningful right to vote for every eligible American.  Since the Court’s ruling, we have used the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act to fight back against voting restrictions in states throughout the country –and won.  In Texas, we have sought to block as discriminatory a strict photo identification law and two statewide redistricting plans.  In North Carolina, we brought suit to enjoin a sweeping election statute that imposes a needlessly restrictive voter identification requirement, reduces early voting opportunities, and eliminates same-day registration during early voting.  And in Ohio, Wisconsin, and on behalf of Tribal Nations in Montana and South Dakota, we have supported plaintiffs challenging a wide array of voting restrictions under the Voting Rights Act.  We have also successfully litigated cases to protect the right of military and overseas voters to register and vote by absentee ballot in federal elections. 

The Justice Department is also working hard outside the courtroom.  Given their historic origins and their present pernicious impact, I have urged state legislatures to lift restrictions that currently disenfranchise millions of citizens convicted of felonies who have served their sentences in order to help them rejoin their civic communities and reclaim their futures. 

I am proud of the work done by the Department of Justice, and I know that my successor—who is with us today—will continue to fight aggressively on behalf of this sacred right.  But I also recognize that the Justice Department cannot wage this fight alone.

For more than two centuries, this nation has been built and improved both by and for the people.  From the framers of a revolution to the engineers of emancipation; from the women walking for suffrage to the marchers from Selma, generation after generation, our slow and arduous progress has always been of our own making.  And today, this progress is entrusted to each of us—to men and women of principle who believe that in an equal America, everyone can shape the future of the nation; that in a fair America, no one is too small to deserve equal treatment under the law, and no one is powerful enough to escape it; and that in a just America, we can do no less than deliver—fully and without reservation—the promise of this country’s democracy to all.

This means standing up, and speaking out, for the civil rights to which everyone in this country is entitled.  It means calling attention to persistent disparities and inequities.  And it means working tirelessly to safeguard and to exercise the right to vote.

At the conclusion of the final march to Montgomery, on the steps of the Alabama state capitol, Dr. King called for “a society at peace with itself.”  We have made once-unimaginable progress in the half-century since he spoke those words.  The failure to acknowledge that is an insult to those we must always honor and hold in our hearts. The fact that I stand here today—50 years after heroes like Reverend Hosea Williams, Amelia Boyntin and Congressman John Lewis were beaten by Alabama State Troopers—as the 82nd, and first African American, Attorney General of the United States, serving in the Administration of the first African American President to lead this nation is cause for great optimism and a sign of tremendous progress.  But progress is not the ultimate goal.  Equality is still the prize. Still, even now, it is clear that we have more work to do; that our beloved community is not yet formed; that our society is not yet at a just peace.

I have no expectation that our goals will be simple to achieve, or that complex challenges will be easily overcome.  I know that our road will be long, and that many obstacles will stand in our way.  But I have no doubt that—if we stand together; if we walk together; if we believe as we always have in the power of our ideals and the force of our shared community—not only our cause, but our country shall overcome.  Half a century ago, it was said that “nothing could stop the marching feet of a determined people.”  Today, 50 years after Bloody Sunday, we stand together once again as a people.  We are no less determined.  And we will march on. 

We will march on, until the self-evident truth of equality is made real for every American.  We will march on, until every citizen is afforded his or her fundamental right to vote.  We will march on, toward that bright horizon, to the day when all Americans—young or old, rich or poor, famous or unknown; no matter who they are, where they’re from, what they look like, or whom they love—has an equal share in the American Dream.  Until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream—we will march on.  We will march because change is not inevitable, progress not preordained.  Our history teaches us that hard work and perseverance in spite of the inevitable setbacks are the only methods to obtain that to which we are entitled. 

While my time in the Department of Justice will soon draw to a close, I want you to know that, no matter what I do or where my own journey takes me, I will never leave this work.  I will never abandon this mission. Nor can you.  If we are to honor those who came before us, and those still among us, we must match their sacrifice, their effort, with our own.  The times change, the issues seem different, but the solutions are timeless and tested: question authority and the old ways. Work.  Struggle.  Challenge entrenched power.  Persevere.  Overcome.

In Galatians 6:9 it is said, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  If we do not give up. 

Be assured that I will always work beside you as we seek to build the more perfect Union—and the more just society—that all Americans deserve

 

Thank you, once again, for your steadfast support; for your passionate engagement; and for your unwavering devotion to this country and this cause—as we join together, as we forge ahead, and – as our people before – we march on.

Updated August 18, 2015