Thank you, Vanita [Gupta], for your warm introduction and for your extraordinary partnership as head of the Civil Rights Division, the conscience of our department. Thank you to Director [Richard] Toscano, Assistant Director [Granette] Tren, and their colleagues in the JMD Equal Opportunity Staff for organizing this important event. And my thanks to the McKinley Technology High School JRTOC Color Guard for their beautiful presentation of the colors today and to Grace [Asonye] for her wonderful rendition of the National Anthem. Thank you, Thomas [Wright], for the touching invocation. And Miss [Zoree] Jones, I have heard about your gift with words and I am glad to have the good fortune to speak before you, not after.
I am so pleased to welcome all of you to the Department of Justice today for our celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Although we as a nation set aside one day in January to pause and commemorate Dr. King’s remarkable contributions, here at the Department of Justice, we would do well to look to his example every day. Because Dr. King devoted himself to our cause – the cause of justice. He kept faith with the belief that our Union could always be made more perfect, despite living in a time and a place that seemed to suggest otherwise. And he worked tirelessly to fulfill the meaning of our founding creed that all men are created equal, despite the unequal treatment he received from so many of his fellow Americans.
This was a faith in America that was deep and abiding. It had to be. Those were difficult times. We are ourselves in a time of transition and change. We look to the future and wonder about policies or initiatives we have worked on. But consider, King and his colleagues did not even have that. We are here in this beautiful building devoted to the rule of law – a law that King looked to often but could not always count on. Think about it – during the bloodiest days of the movement – when four little girls went to sunday school one day and did not come home, when a bridge named after a segregationist was washed in the blood of civil rights activists - there was no Civil Rights Act of 1964, no Voting Rights act at all. Ernesto Miranda had yet to raise his hand. Their organization was not a major national party or a well-oiled machine but a group of ordinary people who pushed against incredible odds, with no guarantee of success, to do extraordinary things.
One of the many remarkable facts about Dr. King’s life is that he did all of these things at such a young age. He was 25 when he rose to prominence during the Montgomery Bus Boycott; 34 when he stood at the Lincoln Memorial and told the world about his dream; and not yet forty when he was taken from us. But nearly five decades after his untimely passing, his words remain some of the most eloquent expressions of who we want to be as a people and where we want to go as a nation.
Dr. King often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is a truth I have seen in my own time. But this arc requires all hands and all hearts to keep its course straight and true. One of the great lessons of Dr. King’s life is that there is nothing inevitable about progress. We often think of the gains of the civil rights movement – of history itself – as inevitable, universal truths that just needed time and diligence to be revealed. But Dr. King knew that whatever gains were to be made had to be fought for. The work of securing justice for all of our people – the work of ensuring a brighter future for our children – that is hard work. And the success of that mission depends on the efforts of individuals, each of whom must choose to shoulder that difficult and trying task.
“The arc of the moral universe is long.…” So is life. And so is the arc of our work. Our hands bend and mold that arc today. We don’t always see the results in our time – another lesson from Dr. King. Some of us step away, but many of you remain to hold the course.
As public servants in this great department, each of you plays a key role in ensuring that justice can be made real for all people. Left on its own, the arc of the moral universe could stray far from what is just and what is good. But you have chosen to train your eyes not on the status quo, but on the more just, more equal future towards which we must strive. And you have chosen to use your strengths and talents not for personal glory, but in service of bending our moral destiny in the true direction of justice. And it is through these deliberate and difficult acts that Dr. King’s words gain true meaning.
So as we recall the dreams of a young preacher who led a nation towards the change it ached for – as we reflect on the progress that he did not live to see, and the work that remains to be done today – I want to thank you for the work you have undertaken and will continue to accomplish, in service of the Department of Justice and for the people of our great nation. As is always true of the cause of justice, there is so much more to do. But seeing your work and meeting you over these years give me the certainty that we are more than equal to the task.
It is now my honor to introduce today’s distinguished keynote speaker. John W. Franklin is the cultural historian and senior manager for external affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For so long, this museum was a dream – dreamed first by black Civil War veterans, and handed from generation to generation, in failed bill after failed bill. But today, thanks to the work and advocacy and heart of so many Americans, that museum is now a majestic reality, its regal profile unlike anything else on the National Mall. It has already welcomed more than 750,000 visitors since it opened last year, and the crowds waiting to get in show no sign of diminishing.
John’s connection to the museum runs much deeper than just employment. For more than a quarter century, he has been involved with African-American and African Diaspora programs at the Smithsonian. This museum also reflects his personal history. His late father headed a scholars’ committee that advised on the contents of the proposed museum’s exhibits. And the museum houses a searing eyewitness account of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots that was penned by John’s grandfather. I am sure that John’s father and grandfather – and Martin Luther King Jr. himself – would be proud and amazed to see how much care and passion has gone into this groundbreaking new museum.
Please help me give a warm welcome to one of the leading historians of our time, a true keeper of dreams and caretaker of hope, John W. Franklin.