Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Soror Madame President [Paulette] Walker, for those kind words – and thank you all for that warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to join you and Soror National First Vice President [Beverly Evans] Smith, along with my good friend – and your Social Action Commission co-chair – Soror [Carla] Harris, and every member of the Executive Committee and Executive Board as we celebrate this distinguished organization; as we congratulate this year’s award recipients; as we reflect on more than a century of engagement and empowerment; and as we recommit ourselves to the tradition of service, scholarship and social action that has always defined this remarkable sisterhood that I am proud to call my own.
It is a particular honor to receive the Patricia Roberts Harris Medallion, named for an extraordinary Delta who was a pioneer in serving her nation and empowering her community – as the first African-American woman appointed U.S. Ambassador; as an attorney who urged corporations to create social change; as the first African-American woman to serve in a president’s Cabinet; and as a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who worked to rebuild troubled communities and engage with those who had been let down, left out and left behind.
Soror Harris actually holds special importance for me. When I was in the seventh grade in Durham, North Carolina, I had a Social Studies teacher – Ms. Mayme Perry – who admired her so deeply that she kept her picture on the wall of our classroom. As a 12-year-old girl in junior high, I may not have fully understood the significance of Soror Harris’ work, or fully appreciated the entrenched durability of the glass ceilings she had shattered – but as I stand before you, serving as Attorney General of the United States, one of only six African-American women to have served in the Cabinet of the United States, four of them Deltas – it is hard not to be in awe of the path she forged; the leadership she provided; and the future she made possible for us all. And it is hard not to see, in her example, the qualities that have always lifted up this organization and animated the women who are joined within its sisterhood. She inspires us still.
Deltas have been making a deep and indelible impact on the political culture and social fabric of the United States since our earliest days – by standing up and speaking out for the most vulnerable members of society; by challenging discrimination based on gender or race; and by providing a network of support for generations of young women seeking to lead this nation and serve its people. Through this work, Delta women have overcome obstacles and surmounted discrimination; transformed lives and uplifted communities. We have fought to establish a legacy of action – in economic development, educational enhancement, international involvement, physical and mental improvement and political and social engagement – including an important effort to enroll individuals in health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. With a chorus of voices 200,000 women strong, we have lent our strength to the fight for justice on the most pressing issues of our time. If anyone doubts the power and strength of Delta, tell them to call me. If anyone doubts what the sisterhood can do, tell them to talk to me. I can bear witness to the strength of sisterhood; to the bonds of sisterhood; and to the bonds of devotion. And I am here not just to bear witness, but to say “thank you.”
We all saw this strength in full force not long ago, as I waited for a vote on my own nomination for Attorney General. As the wait dragged on – and on and on – you showed up to Senate offices, asking – insisting – that my nomination receive a vote. You showed up to my confirmation hearing, surrounding me in a sea of red. It is impossible to doubt the power of Deltas after that – because if you can move Congress, you can do anything. But you did even more than that – you supported me throughout the process with notes, calls and prayers. I felt it all. I am here to tell you: our shield is real; our shield is strong; and when you lean on it, as I have done, it will never let you down. I’m pleased to say that I still often find myself surrounded by great Delta women, including three of my advisors and staff who are here with me today.
Your power is as vital today as it has ever been and your work – and your impact – is needed now more than ever. Recently, we have been reminded that, while this nation has made exceptional progress in the century since Delta’s founding – from women’s rights, to civil rights, to voting rights, which of course are all human rights – challenges continue and longstanding issues remain. We have been reminded that the work of building a beloved community is ongoing and that the fight for our common welfare persists. And we have been reminded that, even today, the scars of old conflicts endure. Too many of our young people are caught up in the criminal justice system. Tensions between minority communities and law enforcement are erupting into violence. And all across the country, our children, families and communities too often find themselves facing discrimination, intimidation, degradation and despair.
I want you to know that as Attorney General of the United States – and as a Delta committed to public service and social justice – I am determined to take on these challenging issues, not only to build a stronger nation, but to empower its people. At the Department of Justice, we are working to reorient a criminal justice system that has for too long incarcerated people of color at a disproportionate rate without significantly improving public safety. We are investing in rehabilitation and reentry programs that can serve as alternatives to incarceration; promoting sentencing reform that will reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentences; and supporting vulnerable communities to prevent them from being caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place – in part by speaking out against zero-tolerance school discipline policies that disproportionately impact young people of color and too often transform schools from gateways to education into pipelines that feed the criminal justice system. Every child deserves the opportunity to be on the honor roll and not the prison rolls. Every child deserves support and not suspicion. And every child deserves to live in a nation that makes clear – with our words and with our actions – that we value them; that we care about them; that we will stand with them and invest in them. This nation is a land of second chances – but it must also be a land where we give opportunities to young people who have never gotten a chance at all.
We are also working with communities around the country to alleviate an epidemic of mistrust between citizens and law enforcement that causes fear for community members and danger for the officers charged with their protection. This is one of my top priorities during my tenure as Attorney General. In fact, two months ago, I launched a six-city tour to highlight some of the most promising work that citizens and law enforcement are doing together to build new foundations of trust, respect and mutual understanding. In Cincinnati, Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama; and East Haven, Connecticut, I have spoken with law enforcement, faith leaders, civic officials and young people of all backgrounds who described the way their collaboration has transformed their cities; who praised their police leadership and the work of the community; and who have formed new bonds of mutual support. In the coming weeks, I will continue my tour in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California, to continue to elevate these issues to the national stage and to help find common ground and common cause. As our beloved Soror Dorothy Height once said and as we all know, “There is no contradiction between effective law enforcement and respect for civil and human rights.”
Of course, we are also turning our sights more broadly to root out the injustice that confines liberty, limits opportunity and restricts the ability to fulfill one’s potential. At the Justice Department, we are taking a comprehensive approach to stamping out inequality 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, what they look like, or whom they love. And we are determined, at every turn, to protect the ability of every individual to secure the full blessings of American life.
These are important steps forward and I intend to work as hard as I know how – with all the fortitude that Delta has instilled in me – to make progress, to spread equality and to advance the principles of justice. But the Department I am proud to lead cannot do this work alone. In the days ahead, we will need your support, your vigor and most of all, your voice. After all, the reason these issues have been brought into the public consciousness – the reason we are able to build a mandate for change – is that concerned citizens, passionate activists and strong leaders have highlighted disparities and begun the march forward. They are using new approaches, new energy and new methods of communication like social media to bring attention to vital issues. Many are our sisters and brothers in Greek life, as well as other allies in the cause. All are engaged in the challenges of our time and all are committed to raising their voice and working for victory. That’s what Deltas have always done. And that is what we must continue to do.
Today, this gathering has an extraordinary opportunity – and a sacred responsibility – to continue the march that our founders began. We have a duty – at this pivotal moment – to impact our community and our world; to use our voice to call for change and our will to bend the arc of the moral universe further towards justice. And so, I call on all of us in this room – and our allies across the country – to redouble our efforts and renew our call; to raise awareness of inequities and highlight injustice. And in every case, in every instance – whether you are a teacher helping shape young minds for inclusion and success, or a lawyer fighting for justice for your clients and your community; whether you are a faith leader ministering to the needs of your congregation, or a university student taking up the mantle of our cause – I ask you to continue the fight for progress. I ask you to continue the work for change. And I ask you to continue to demand the empowered society that all human beings deserve. We are Deltas – and lest we forget, Deltas have been fighting for change, for progress and for empowerment since the inception of our sisterhood. Lest we forget – we’ve done this before.
Lest we forget, just over a century ago, the founders of this organization took part in their first public act by participating in the Women’s Suffrage March, even in the face of bigotry and oppression. Lest we forget, in 1963, the Deltas took to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as Dr. King spoke about his dream, with Soror Height serving as the only woman on the platform. Lest we forget, in 1965, Soror Vivian Malone – the sister of my line sister, Sharon Maloneand the sister-in-law of my predecessor, Eric Holder – became the first African-American to graduate from the University of Alabama after braving Governor George Wallace’s infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” Lest we forget, in 1968, Soror Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to Congress, running as Deltas always have: “unbought and unbossed.” Lest we forget, in 1974, Houston’s own – Texas Congresswoman, Soror Barbara Jordan – stood on the floor of the House of Representatives to open the impeachment trial of President Nixon with one of the greatest political speeches of our time, setting forth the words that have been the lodestar of my own career as she proclaimed, “My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total.” From the earliest days of our movement, when 22 young women at Howard University formed a sisterhood born of excellence and service, to the ongoing struggles of our time, Deltas of every background and circumstance have joined together to strategize, to organize and to galvanize the advancement that this nation promised and the progress its people deserve.
The world has seen the power of Delta – and now is the time to harness that voice, to use it for social action and to advance social justice. Now is the time to follow in the footsteps of women like Sorors Dorothy Height, Vivian Malone, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, Patricia Roberts Harris and so many others. Now is the time, at this moment of challenge and opportunity, in this season of difficulty and hope, to raise our collective voice and make ourselves heard. Now is the time. For lest we forget – the victories we have won have never come easily. The progress we have made has never been certain. And the future of this country and this community has never been preordained. Now is the time.
Our work will not always be easy. It never has been. There will be difficult times ahead. We’ve been through them before. But as I look around this hall – at so many extraordinary, inspirational women; at all my sisters – I have no doubt that we will meet the challenges we face. I have no doubt that we will be equal to the promise of our history. And I have no doubt that, together – with the torch of wisdom held high – we will lead the way to a new and brighter world.
Thank you, once again, for the opportunity to be here with you today. Thank you for this wonderful award, which means so much to me. I’ll leave you now only to carry on this fight. But I do not undertake this endeavor alone. Know that, everywhere I go – “when and where I enter” – I carry you with me. And know that, even as I go, I remain yours in justice. I remain yours in service – and always, always, yours in Delta.