Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Richard [Toscano], for that kind introduction and for your outstanding leadership of JMD’s Equal Employment Opportunity Staff. I also want to thank all of the Equal Employment Opportunity staff – not only for organizing this commemoration of Black History Month here at the Department of Justice, but also for the work that you do every day to ensure that this Department receives the benefit of a diverse workforce. I am pleased to see so many students in the Great Hall this morning. One of the main reasons we study the past is so that we can build a brighter future and you – the young people of our country – have the greatest stake in that future. I’m glad you could join us for this important celebration. Finally, I want to mention one very special guest: Dorie Ann Ladner. Ms. Ladner was involved in some of the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement, from her work with the Freedom Riders to her leadership in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. The story of progress that we celebrate today was made possible because of Americans like her and I want to thank her, once again, for the extraordinary gift she has given us all.
The theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Hallowed Ground: Sites of African American Memories,” and it commemorates 25 places of great significance to the African American experience, from stops along the Underground Railroad, to the birthplace of the blues on Memphis’s Beale Street. These are places of pride and hope, of activism and action and they are deeply important to the story of our country. This morning, I want to focus on a place that isn’t on the official list of Black History Month sites, but that has nevertheless played a vital role in the history of black Americans’ struggle for equality: the building in which we stand today. It was here in Main Justice that our predecessors determined that the department had both the ability and the obligation to challenge discrimination and defend civil rights. It was here, in the very conference room that I now use, that they made the decision to send U.S. Marshals south to protect the Freedom Riders. It was here that they organized the integration of the universities of Alabama and Mississippi. And it was here that they drafted significant portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Because of what was done in this building, at that time, I am able to stand before you as the 83rd Attorney General of these United States and sit in the office where the work was done that saved the soul of our nation. The inscription on the north side of this building reads, “The place of justice is a hallowed place.” But that is not made so by the stones that construct it but by the work that inhabits it – the pursuit of the more perfect union that is the birthright of us all.
Today, we have the privilege of occupying this place – and we have the responsibility to protect and expand on the work of those who came before us. I am proud to say that we are doing just that. Under the Obama administration, we’ve convicted more defendants on hate crimes charges than at any other time in history, because no person should be targeted for threats or violence because of what they look like, how they worship, or whom they love. We’ve stood against jurisdictions attempting to curb voting rights, because when we consider those hallowed places for African Americans, surely the voting booth must be one of them. We’re supporting a number of initiatives to keep our young people in school and out of the justice system, because school should be a place of opportunity, not a pipeline to prison. And we’re at the forefront of efforts to build positive relationships of trust between law enforcement officers and the people we serve, because the place next to our law enforcement officers should be a place of safety and security for every American.
This is just some of the vital work we are doing at the Department of Justice not only to continue our department’s illustrious history, but to build upon it. Of course, government and law enforcement officers can only do so much on our own. As President Lincoln so famously said, ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people and it is the people – our voices and our votes – that ultimately determine the course of our nation. That means it is up to all of us in this country – no matter who we are, where we work, or where we live – to stand up and speak out for what is right and to make ourselves heard in the fight for justice.
For more than a century, few organizations have been more effective at lifting up those voices than the NAACP. From waging a thirty-year campaign against lynching to convincing President Franklin Roosevelt to open thousands of jobs to African Americans in the New Deal; and from successfully arguing the historic Brown v. Board of Education case to marshaling public opinion on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the NAACP has long been at the vanguard of the drive for equal rights and equal opportunity in the United States. And today, their work continues – their work as a voice for comprehensive criminal justice reform; for voting rights; for affordable health care; and for an end to racial discrimination.
Since 2014, the NAACP has been led by Cornell Brooks, our keynote speaker today. A minister, a trial attorney and an activist, Mr. Brooks is one of the preeminent civil rights leaders of our time. He has devoted his life to public service, serving as a senior counsel for the Federal Communications Commission, a trial attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington and an attorney in our own civil rights division. And now, as president and CEO of the largest and oldest grassroots civil rights organization in the country, he is spearheading campaigns to resolve some of the most pressing problems of the 21st century. He is a standard bearer of the ongoing work to bring our actions into ever closer alignment with our ideals and it is a privilege to have him with us today. You know, you never really leave the Department of Justice. You take that commitment and dedication with you wherever you go. So it gives me such pleasure today to be able to say to our eminent speaker, welcome home. Please join me in welcoming Cornell Brooks.