Thank you, Vanita [Gupta], for that kind introduction and for your leadership of the Civil Rights Division, which is doing so much to advance Dr. King’s vision in our own time. I also want to thank Deputy Attorney General [Sally] Yates for her many contributions to that urgent work. And thank you to Director [Richard] Toscano and Deputy Director [Denise] Abrahams and their colleagues from the JMD Equal Employment Opportunity Staff for organizing this important annual event and for working tirelessly to ensure that the Department of Justice can benefit from the skills and experience of every American. I’d like to recognize the Cardozo Senior High Color Guard; vocalist Dorothy Williams from the Disability Rights Section; and Norman Jones, winner of the Prince William County Public Schools’ Martin Luther King Oratory Competition, for helping to make this celebration truly unique. Finally, I want to single out a very special guest: Dorie Ann Ladner. Ms. Ladner was at the center of so many of the crucial triumphs of the civil rights movement. As a young college student, she worked with the Freedom Riders and helped organize the Freedom Summer. One of the pillars of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, she joined the March on Washington and marched from Selma to Montgomery. The progress that we celebrate today was made possible because of brave Americans like her. I am able to stand before you here because she marched there. It is an honor to have her with us as we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr.; as we reflect on the legacy he left behind; and as we rededicate ourselves to the task of continuing his unfinished work.
For Dr. King, that work began in the midst of what he called a “long night of racial injustice.” Segregation was the law of the land and enforced by agents of the law – the forces of government acting to directly oppress citizens; odious regulations and outright bigotry denied African Americans the right to vote; and the lives of countless people of color across the United States were dominated by fear, threatened by violence and constrained by prejudice. In the darkest hour of that long night, Dr. King’s words and deeds provided a spark of humanity – a spark that spread across the country. From the granite steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the dank confines of the Birmingham jail, Dr. King painted a vision of dignity and democracy. He described a “beloved community” – one not riven by hatred or divided by color, but instead governed by brotherhood for all humankind. And he challenged America to rise up and live out the meaning of its founding creed: to ensure opportunity, to promote equality and to demand justice.
Thanks to the struggles and sacrifices of Dr. King, his colleagues and an untold number of ordinary citizens who believed in the possibility and necessity of a more perfect union, we live in a nation today that has traveled an extraordinary distance from that long night. Because the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement were willing to raise their voices, to risk their safety and even to lose their lives, we live in a nation where segregation no longer receives the sanction of law and where no person can lawfully be denied the right to vote simply because of their race. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 continue to stand as landmarks in our nation’s history – monuments to our values and to the extraordinary progress that we have made together. Later campaigns that have focused on improving the welfare of our citizens and realizing the hopes of our nation have rested, in large part, on the extraordinary example of the Civil Rights Movement. On this day dedicated to Martin Luther King, it is appropriate that we pause to appreciate just how drastically the movement he led improved our common life.
And yet, to truly honor Martin Luther King and the millions who marched, stood up, sat in and spoke out, we must recognize that their words and their deeds are not relics of history, but living challenges – calls to action that still echo in our hearts, urging us to continue their journey, to extend their cause and to realize their vision of a more just society – and a more beloved community. His challenge – a challenge to a nation to live up to its defining principles – still echoes today. Indeed, it is the challenge of every generation to realize that the price of freedom is constant vigilance; to understand that while we cannot erase every dark prejudice from the heart of man, we can work to ensure that the angels of our better selves win the day.
Here at the Department of Justice, the only cabinet agency named for an ideal, we have a special obligation to advance that goal – and the work that we have done and continue to do, is a testament to our determination in the service of that effort.
We are vigorously defending every citizen’s right to vote, using every legal tool available to us to enforce the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County and we are working to broaden American Indians’ and Alaska Natives’ access to polling booths. We are protecting civil rights beyond the ballot box, as well – since 2009, our Civil Rights Division has filed more criminal civil rights cases and prosecuted and convicted more defendants on hate crimes charges, than at any other point in the department’s history. We’re working to ensure civil rights in criminal justice, in part by promoting trust and strengthening relationships between law enforcement and the communities we serve. And we’re playing a leading role in this administration’s drive to reform our criminal justice system, especially through our ongoing work to reduce recidivism and improve reentry outcomes. Last year, our Office of Justice Programs disbursed $53 million in Second Chance Act grants to 45 municipalities nationwide, offering critical assistance to populations at risk of recidivism, including justice-involved youth and people with diagnosed mental illnesses. We’ve also joined with the Departments of Education, Labor and Housing and Urban Development to launch innovative programs in a number of areas, from making Pell grants available to some incarcerated individuals to helping local jurisdictions with record-cleaning and expungement, so that every American returning home has the chance to contribute to their communities and make a new life for themselves.
This is all vital work and the scope and the pace of our efforts on behalf of justice and civil rights demonstrate how far we’ve come in the last half-century. But it is clear, even now, that we still have a long way to go to reach the promised land that Dr. King described – and that every one of us must be committed to do our part. After all, as Dr. King knew well – and as all of you here in this room understand – there is nothing inevitable about progress. There is nothing foreordained about our advancement. We often look back on the achievements of the civil rights movement, on history itself, as if they represent a story that was written with heroes preordained to succeed. The great American novel come to life. Yet in those days, there were no guarantees. No one knew if their efforts would be successful or not. People, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton, Dorie Ann Ladner, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge not knowing if they would be met with accommodation or more of the armed resistance that highlighted the South. Yet what they knew, which led to what they did, was that whatever the cost, they must march forward because there was no other way to go. It has been ever true in this country – a nation designed both by and for the people – that the future has always belonged to those who dare to imagine it; who decide to build it; and who resolve to protect it from those who might tear it down. That is why it is incumbent on all of us here today, our partners around the country and every citizen of the United States, to devote ourselves to the perfection of our union; to recommit ourselves to the continuation of Dr. King’s cause; and to rededicate ourselves to the journey still to come. As we honor Dr. King’s life and legacy, we must renew our commitment to the vision he embodied and hasten the arrival of the day when his dream will come to pass for every American and for all the world.
Dr. King understood that our choices, in the face of injustice, are what define us. He understood that even those who sought to sit on the sidelines and allow oppression to continue were choosing a path that supported it. He understood that, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” We all have that choice. I commit to you today, that this Department of Justice will always choose to act. We will always choose to protect the weak from the strong, to lift up the essential humanity and equal rights of every American, regardless of what they look like, where they live or whom they love. And we will always work to extend the promise of equality, the promise of America, to all.
I want to thank you all for your dedication to that mission and I look forward to the work we will do together to build our beloved community in the days and years to come.