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Attorney General Holder Speaks at the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission Annual Drum Major Awards Luncheon


Salt Lake City, UT
United States

Thank you, Attorney General [Mark ] Shurtleff. I appreciate your kind words – and I’m especially grateful for your leadership, your partnership, and your friendship. I also want to thank Dr. [Roderic] Land and the members of Utah’s MLK Human Rights Commission for this wonderful award, and for putting me in such good company – among previous recipients like Mark , who share a commitment to the values – of tolerance, compassion, and justice – that defined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and distinguished his service to our nation.

Today, as we reflect upon and celebrate Dr. King’s many achievements – and his enduring legacy – I am honored to join with this group. And I want to thank you all – especially Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell, Mayor Ralph Becker, and County Executive Peter Corroon – for welcoming me to this beautiful city.

More than half a century has passed since Dr. King traveled from Atlanta to Salt Lake City – to spread his message of hope and unity, and to sound his call for change. In January of 1961, before a packed crowd of students at the University of Utah, Dr. King brought news from the South – declaring that, despite powerful forces of opposition, “segregation [was] crumbling” and that a movement to ensure “first-rate citizenship” for all Americans was taking hold. In many ways, this was the dawn of the civil rights era – just before sit-ins, Freedom Rides, ballot drives, and protest marches began to sweep across the nation. But, for those who welcomed him on his first trip to Utah, it was clear that Dr. King – already – could see the Promised Land.

In the decades that have passed since Dr. King shared his vision from the mountaintop – and helped to stir Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds into action – our nation has seen extraordinary, once-unimaginable progress. Today, each one of us owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. King – and so many others – for the work that they led, the trails that they blazed, the doors of opportunity that they opened, and – of course – for the sacrifices that they made.

How I wish that Dr. King could be here with us – to see the America that he helped to create, the good will and great works that he still inspires, and the fact that a monument in his honor now stands on our National Mall – within sight of memorials to our nation’s first President and its Great Emancipator, where Dr. King rallied the American people to march alongside him – and to dream along with him.

How I wish he could see the enduring impact he has had – in ensuring fairness in our schools and workplaces, our legal system and our election processes.

Yes, we have a great deal to celebrate. But, let’s be clear – we have not yet reached the Promised Land. Despite all that’s been achieved in recent years, the work of strengthening our nation and ensuring that all of our fellow citizens are empowered remains incomplete. The challenges before us – and the divisions that, too often, separate us from one another – may have evolved. But addressing them will require the same skills, the same perseverance, and the same willingness – not only to speak out, but also to listen – that Dr. King exemplified. And the time to act has never been more urgent. “The fierce urgency of now” has never been more clear.

I say this fully aware of the fact that a direct beneficiary of the civil rights movement is now in the White House, and that another direct beneficiary has the honor of leading our nation’s Department of Justice. The harsh truth is that, even today – after so many decades of struggle – in America’s most vibrant and prosperous cities, it cannot be denied that there are communities where the doors to learning and job opportunities remain firmly closed; where the promise of equal justice is unfulfilled; where thousands of children are growing up at risk and in need; and where, just as Dr. King observed 5 decades ago, “unity is the great need of the hour.”

In confronting these stark facts, we must resist the temptation to give in to cynicism and frustration, or to blame and despair. Today, we are called to look upon our country as Dr. King did – seeing not only great challenges, but also extraordinary opportunities; and remembering the greatest lesson he left behind: that each one of us has the power, and the obligation, to improve the lives of others.

This is, as always, a difficult task. The work of perfecting our union never has been, and never will be, easy. And it may not always be popular. But each of us has a responsibility to take action – to take up the unfinished struggle for equal opportunity and justice.

Today, as Attorney General, I have the privilege – and the solemn duty – of enforcing many of the civil rights laws and reforms that Dr. King fought to ensure. For our nation’s Department of Justice, and for government and law enforcement partners across the country, this is among our highest priorities. And we can all be extremely proud of the progress that’s been made in recent years.

I’m especially pleased to report that, under this Administration, we have launched a groundbreaking initiative to expand access to legal services; and that the critical work of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has not only been revitalized – it’s never been stronger.

In fact, during the Administration’s first fiscal year, the Department filed a record number of civil rights criminal cases. The following year, we broke that record, a success that was followed with the largest human trafficking prosecutions in history – and the opening of more than 100 matters under the landmark Hate Crimes Prevention Act that we have worked tirelessly to advance. With a variety of steps, we’ve also expanded enforcement efforts to guarantee that – in our workplaces and military bases; in our housing and lending markets; in our schools and places of worship; in our border areas and voting booths – the rights of all Americans are protected.

In particular, I want to note that our Civil Rights Division – and its Voting Section – have taken meaningful steps to ensure integrity, independence, and transparency in our enforcement of the Voting Rights Act – legislation that Dr. King was instrumental in advancing. In the course of these efforts, we have worked successfully and comprehensively to protect the voting rights of U.S. service members and veterans, and to enforce other laws that protect Americans living abroad, citizens with disabilities, and language minorities. This is in keeping with the arc of American history, which always moves towards inclusion - not exclusion - with regard to the ballot.

Here in Utah, as your population has grown, we’ve seen the need for such measures. As some of you know, recently, the Census Bureau issued its new determinations of coverage under the language minority provisions of the Voting Rights Act – which now apply to more than 19 million voting-age citizens nationwide.  One of the new jurisdictions that is covered, and now required to provide election materials in a minority language, is Salt Lake County. Already, local officials, and Justice Department employees, have begun working together on this issue. And I want to assure you all that we stand ready to assist in any and every way to help make certain that – in this great state – all eligible citizens have the chance, and the information necessary, to participate meaningfully in their governance.

But this is not just a job for public officials, policymakers, and attorneys. Ensuring that every veteran, every senior, every college student, and every eligible citizen has the right to vote – and that our election systems are free from fraud and partisan influence – must become our common cause. This is not only a legal issue. It is a moral imperative – and a duty that each one of us shares.

If shouldering such a responsibility sounds difficult, or seems overwhelming, we need only to turn to Dr. King’s example. His life is proof that, in the work of expanding opportunity, promoting peace, and ensuring justice – one person can make a difference. Individual actions count. And those who are willing to march toward progress, to stand up for a principle, or to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable among us – can help to change and improve the world.

With this in mind – and in the spirit of Dr. King – let us carry on his noble efforts. Let us protect all that he achieved for future generations. And let us lift up our nation as he once did – by reaching out to each other; and by continuing to strive toward, to work for, and to dream of the Promised Land that – together – we truly have the ability to create.

Thank you.

Updated August 18, 2015