Thank you, President [Cornell] Brooks, for that kind introduction and for your outstanding leadership of this distinguished organization. I also want to recognize Roslyn Brock, Chair of the NAACP’s Board of Directors. And I want to thank all of you for such a warm welcome tonight, as we close out what has been a truly exciting and deeply inspiring convention. It’s a pleasure to join so many committed partners, passionate advocates and good friends in Philadelphia this year. And it’s a privilege to stand with the NAACP’s leaders, members and supporters – including the many extraordinary speakers you’ve heard from over the last five days – as we celebrate the proud history and enduring legacy of this remarkable organization.
That history is long and your successes are legendary. They are taught in schools, studied by activists and celebrated as defining triumphs in the improvement of the United States of America. But the power and the passion of the NAACP and all its achievements are not confined to books nor consigned to the pages of history. They live on today and they remind us that the best way to honor a century’s worth of progress is to ready ourselves for the progress we must make as a new century unfolds; to fight on to build the more equal, more secure, more just future that has been the NAACP’s goal since its inception; to not only help our fellow citizens “pursue liberty in the face of injustice,” but to root out the injustice that confines liberty, limits opportunity and restricts the ability of any citizen to secure what President Lyndon Johnson called “the full blessings of American life.”
That goal is not only the cause of this organization – it is the mission of this country and the animating ideal of the Department of Justice. I am proud to say that we at the Justice Department are taking a comprehensive approach to stamping out inequality and ending discrimination whenever and wherever it may occur – from classrooms to voting booths, from boardrooms to border areas. Our attorneys and investigators, led in part by our outstanding Civil Rights Division, are present on the ground and fighting on all fronts to bring equal rights and equal justice to all Americans – no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they look like. Just last month, the Supreme Court affirmed our view that the Fair Housing Act encompasses disparate impact claims, enabling us to continue bringing legal challenges based on unfair and unacceptable discriminatory effects. And we are proud to stand with Secretary [Julian] Castro at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to enhance enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in order to remedy the entrenched segregation that afflicts too many of our communities.
Of course, advancing liberty and justice also requires that we look critically at the Justice Department’s own role – and its own responsibility – as a central player in the federal criminal justice system. Two years ago, my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, launched the Smart on Crime initiative – a groundbreaking effort designed to reorient the way we approach criminal justice issues by diminishing the use of harsh mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenses; investing in rehabilitation and reentry programs that can reduce the likelihood of recidivism; and supporting vulnerable communities to prevent them from being caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place. We convened the Federal Interagency Reentry Council in 2011 to reduce barriers to successful reentry, directed every United States Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator in his or her district and asked our law enforcement partners and state Attorneys General to reconsider policies that create overly burdensome collateral consequences while doing little to improve public safety in a meaningful way.
The early results of these efforts have been extremely promising. I am not just hopeful, but excited about where these reforms will lead us in the years to come. But as President Obama said yesterday, there is no question that there is more we can do – and more that we must do. I commend the President for his action this week to commute the unduly long sentences of 46 individuals, the vast majority of whom were convicted of relatively minor drug crimes – a striking illustration of the unfairness in some of our sentencing laws – and I welcome his charge to reexamine the use of solitary confinement as a form of incarceration. I also look forward to working with Congress to advance a broader reform effort on the federal level and building on the bipartisan support we’ve seen around the country for making our criminal justice system more efficient, more effective and more fair.
Nowhere are these efforts more vital than in our work with young people – because they are the ones whose entire lives can be forever altered when the criminal justice system ensnares them or their parents – and the ones who stand to benefit most from early interventions that put them on a more promising path forward. We need children – particularly children of color – to turn towards the law enforcement officers in their neighborhoods; to view them as partners, helpers and members of the community; and to aspire to become guardians themselves. We need children to experience schools that are places to learn and to grow and not zero-tolerance institutions or pipelines into the criminal justice system. Ultimately, we need children to see possibilities for themselves beyond the cycle of criminality and incarceration that has too often become a tragic and familiar fact of life. America is a land of second chances – but it must also be a land where we give opportunities to young people who haven’t gotten a chance at all.
That’s why we need to make clear to the youth of this nation – not only with our words, but with our actions – that we value them, that we care about them, that we will stand with them, and that America is their country, too. It’s why we need to invest in initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper, which is designed to help all children fulfill their potential. It’s why we need to renew our focus on alternatives to prison, like drug courts and treatment and probation programs that can help keep young people and their parents out of jail and on the right track. And it’s why we need to work in partnership with cities across the country, through programs like the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, to promote positive relationships between law enforcement and the communities we serve – to demonstrate what I know: that law enforcement can protect communities without breaking them and that communities can and must be partners in the effort to ensure public safety.
A few weeks ago, I began traveling to cities across the country to showcase some of the innovative work that law enforcement agencies and community groups are doing, together, to strengthen police-community relations and foster mutual trust and respect. I have been encouraged by what I have seen so far and by the conversations I’ve been a part of – especially with young people. And I have been particularly excited by the youth activism that has taken root, not only in these cities but nationwide, as young Americans use new forms of communication like social media to bring attention to vital issues that have been too long ignored. Some of these young people are members of local chapters of NAACP. Others are newcomers to social action. But all are engaged in the challenges of our time and all are committed to using new approaches, new methods and new energy to ensure that we as a nation can strengthen our society and live up to our values.
In so many ways, our movement has always been inspired by young people. And they have often borne the brunt of those efforts with a grace and fortitude well beyond their years. During the dark days of fire hoses and police dogs, the marches in Birmingham were led by young people. Of course, four little girls were targeted as retribution. Fifty years ago, John Lewis walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge towards the full measure of equality promised to us all, and received blows to the head instead. But he continued to stand as the definition of “bloody, but unbowed.” In my hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, the sit-in movement was started by students at A&T University, who withstood the derision and physical assaults heaped upon them, setting off a wave of nonviolent resistance to segregation across the South. Young people all, committing their energy, their innovation and their resolve – insisting, even in difficult times, that there were brighter days ahead if only we all had the courage to do our part.
During those days of the North Carolina sit-ins, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed young activists at the Durham church that my father would go on to pastor several years later. Dr. King praised “the spectacular example of determined and dedicated young people demanding their rights.” He imagined that, “one day, historians of this era might be able to say, there lived a great people…who injected new meaning into civilization.” And he reminded his audience that, “[W]hen you have found…a correct course, a morally sound objective, you do not equivocate, you do not retreat – you struggle to win a victory.”
Today, in this city of Brotherly Love, we celebrate the greatness of that people. We call on their spirit to fortify us as we build the more just society that they always imagined. And we commit to this struggle – without equivocation or retreat – for our children, who too often bear the consequences of our imperfection and for generations to come, who will inherit the world that we design. Tonight, as we celebrate the triumphs of our past, let us also plan for the days to come. Let us summon the energy of the young people who were the foot soldiers of our movement. Let us take inspiration from the long road we’ve traveled as we look forward to the journey that lies before us. And let us recommit ourselves to truths that were held to be self-evident nearly two and a half centuries ago in a meeting hall not far from here: that all are created equal. That all are endowed with unalienable rights. That all are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The road ahead will not be easy – it never has been. We will face difficult times – we always have. But the beauty of America, the glory of America and the history of America tells us that many of our greatest accomplishments in civil rights, in human rights, come after some of our darkest days. Dr. King also spoke in Greensboro during the days of the sit-ins. My father remembers him speaking there, and saying, “If God had asked me when I wanted to be born, I’d want to be born now.” Even in those times of adversity, he saw the opportunity for this country to become the beacon of hope envisioned by its founders.
My friends, I’m glad I was born now. I’m glad the NAACP is here now. I’m glad I have the chance to work with all of you now, all of you who are motivated by faith in the promise of this country and steeled with the determination to make that promise real. And because we are all here now, I have the utmost confidence that, together, we will continue to spread dignity, fairness and equality to every corner of this nation. And out of a long night of injustice, a brighter day will come.
Thank you and keep up the great work.