Thank you, Congressman [Steny] Hoyer, for that kind introduction, for your extensive and impressive record of public service, and for your strong and unwavering commitment to securing equality, opportunity and justice for every American. I’d also like to recognize an exceptional colleague of mine from the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney [Rod] Rosenstein. Thanks to all of the federal, state and local officials who are here with us today. And thank you to the committee that made this gathering possible. I particularly want to recognize the chair of that committee, Betty Richardson, who has helped organize the 5th Congressional District’s Black History Month Breakfast every year since it began 35 years ago. It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning, and it’s a privilege to join this group of distinguished leaders and passionate advocates as we reflect on the challenges we have overcome; as we celebrate the progress we have made; and as we rededicate ourselves to the work that still remains.
Every February, this country takes an opportunity to look back at the extraordinary journey that is black history in America. Each year, the Association for the Study of African American life and history selects a theme, or area of focus, in black history. This year’s theme is “Hallowed Ground: Sites of African American Memories.” It is a theme that commemorates the places that bore silent witness to the struggle for freedom, that sheltered us along the path towards equality, and that have been consecrated by the spirits of those who gave their lives in pursuit of the more perfect union that is the birthright of us all. Many of those sites are right here in the great state of Maryland – the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, Frederick Douglass’ home. All of them inspire us still.
This year’s theme has caused me to think about the concept of how a place can inspire a people. One particular site comes to mind, although it is not on the official list of Black History Month sites because it has not survived as a structure. Before the Department of Justice occupied the beautiful art deco building we are headquartered in now on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., we occupied several different offices. But from 1869 – 1899, the Department of Justice was headquartered on the top floor of the Freedman’s National Bank building in D.C., which is now the site of the Treasury Department annex. The department occupied that building while the bank was still open and flourishing, until the bank’s demise in 1874. At one time it had almost $57 million on deposit.
The bank suffered greatly in the 1870’s, eventually closing in 1874. But I like to think that spirit of that institution was absorbed into the bones of the Department of Justice. I like to think that the hopes of equality and the dreams of full participation in American life were transmitted to those of us who work to make those hope and dreams come true every day. I have always thought it so fitting that we shared that space with the Freedman’s Bank in those fragile years after the Civil War. And as we look back on black history in America, we see that so much of it is the history of the search for justice in this country. We searched for it in the dark holds of the slave ships that were the passage for so many. We cried out for it during the dark days of slavery and Jim Crow. We fought for it throughout the civil rights era. We walked towards it as we crossed a bridge named Pettus. And we seek it still as we work to ensure that every American enjoys the full blessings of liberty and equality. And the lesson we learn from this search is not that justice is elusive or absent, but that every generation must take up its cause and make it real for the next. We learn that justice is not reserved for those in high positions or with great titles, but is held in the hearts and hands of ordinary people – young and old, black and white, famous and unknown – taking one more step on the road to progress; one more step on the path to a more just society. Men and women who boycotted buses in Montgomery. Children who braved newly integrated schools. Individuals who sat in, stood up, and spoke out however they could in communities across this nation, lending their hearts and their hands to bend the arc of the moral universe just a little further towards justice. We know that progress does not unfold on its own, but is caused when people like those of us in this room today hear the call to service, and resolve to do our part.
Like many of you, I have felt that call my entire life – as a girl growing up between the pews of her father’s church, as a law student eager to make a difference, and as a prosecutor who swore an oath to execute my duties faithfully, in the service of the people and the country that I love. Now as Attorney General, I am proud to lead a department that is as committed as ever to making this nation’s promises real for all Americans – no matter what we look like, where we’re from, where we live, or whom we love.
The Department of Justice is the only Cabinet office that is named for an ideal. Our work touches the fabric – and the places – of American life – from the courtroom to the classroom, from our voting booths to our border areas, and from rural towns to city streets. And in all of those areas, we are taking a comprehensive approach to stamping out inequality, to bolstering civil rights, and to promoting opportunity for all Americans. We’re taking measures to keep children in school, on a path to success, and out of prison – because school, of all places, must be a place that opens doors to our children, not closes off their lives. We’ve gone to court to defend the right to vote that so many fought so hard to secure, because as we take this month to consider hallowed places, for African Americans surely the voting booth must be one of them. We’ve convicted more defendants on hate crimes charges than at any other time in history, because this country should be a safe place for all who seek freedom. And we’re spearheading efforts to build trust between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve, because the space next to a police officer should be a place of safety and security for every American.
These are all significant undertakings, and I could not be more proud of the women and men who are doing their part not only to preserve the tremendous gains we have made as a country and as a people, but to expand them – to broaden the circle of opportunity for ourselves and for generations to come. That is the mandate of our time, just as it has been the mandate of every generation before us. But fulfilling it will not be easy, and it will require more than the efforts of one department, no matter how committed. It will require all of us – in communities like this one, with the leadership of men and women like you – to put our shoulders to the wheel and resolve to be the agents of change: to be leaders of strong character and good judgment; to participate in the decisions that will advance our communities; to speak on behalf of the most vulnerable among us.
Now, I am well aware that obstacles lie before us – particularly at a time like this, when Americans are anxious about the future, when long-simmering fissures erupt anew, and when it seems at times that the voices that tempt us to give in to fear and division and futility are louder than ever before. In recent months, we’ve seen tensions boil over into unrest. We’ve seen the cornerstone of our democracy – the right to vote – come under fresh attacks. And we’ve seen hateful rhetoric creep into our public discourse, urging us to choose the easy path of blame and suspicion over the much harder road of conversation and support. We see all of that. But let me tell you what else we see. We see young people taking up the mantle of those who have gone before and speaking out. We see people of good will of all faiths and all backgrounds speaking out in support of those who are targeted. We see commemorations like this inspiring others to continue the struggle. And I know that we are equal to the challenges we face, because we have faced them before, and we have overcome.
That is why commemorations like this one are so important – because by looking to the challenges of the past, we find strength to meet the difficulties of the present. Our history reminds us that the pursuit of justice, the struggle for liberty, the quest for equality – these things have never been easy, and progress has never been certain. Some of the most moving passages in Dr. King’s sermons are those in which he spoke of his fears – fears for himself and his family; fears that he would not succeed. But he went on to say, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” He knew there were no guarantees, except the guarantee that nothing would change if he did not act, and he told us, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” That kind of courage – a courage of conviction; a commitment to do what is right, even in the face of great danger and oppression – is what has driven our work to ensure the truth of this country’s founding promise: that all are created equal.
Today, as we honor the choices made and the actions taken by brave women, men and children of times past, let us call upon their courage again. Let us draw strength and inspiration from our hallowed places and resolve to take the next step; to continue marching; to keep, in the words of that great freedom song, our eyes on the prize. Because if we do these things – if we pledge our courage and our conviction to the cause of progress – then there is nothing that we cannot achieve. As Dr. King said, “Nothing could stop the marching feet of a determined people.” We are no less determined today – and so, the march goes on: to bring unity to a nation too often divided; to bring equality to a society too often riven by prejudice; and to bring justice to our beloved community, today and in the days to come.
I want to thank each of you for your commitment to that cause. Thank you for all you have done on behalf of a better life for us all. I look forward to standing with you – and marching by your side – as we continue that sacred work together.