Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Reverend [Al] Sharpton, for that kind introduction and for your tireless efforts to shine a light in dark places and to draw attention to our nation’s unfulfilled promises. For more than 20 years, the National Action Network has been part of the vanguard of this country’s ongoing movement for progressive change through expanded equality and opportunity. Together, you have spoken out to ensure that our criminal justice system is fair and effective. You have stood up for every eligible citizen’s right to vote. And on issues as diverse as job access, corporate responsibility, education, and nonviolence, you have driven important conversations and prompted meaningful action to help create the more perfect Union to which we continue to aspire.
I want to thank my colleague, Acting Secretary [John] King of the Department of Education, for his service in that mission. I also want to thank Jennifer Pinckney for being a part of this gathering and for her extraordinary example of charity and grace – not only in the last few months, but throughout her life. And I want to acknowledge my predecessor at the Department of Justice – Attorney General Eric Holder, who richly deserves the honor you bestow on him today. Attorney General Holder is a powerful advocate, a visionary leader and a devoted public servant who feels deeply the “fierce urgency of now” that fueled Dr. King’s extraordinary work. I am proud to lead an institution that bears his indelible imprint and I am indebted to – and inspired by – his legacy there. Finally, I want to thank all of you for being here today and for the work that you do every day across the country. It is a pleasure – and a tremendous honor – to join you here this morning as we come together to celebrate the life and enduring legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and to rally the next generation of leaders and advocates behind the cause of his life’s work: civil rights, social justice and opportunity for all.
Every year, our nation pauses on this day to reflect on the immeasurable contributions and extraordinary sacrifices of a transformational leader. From a remarkably early age, Dr. King was an unwavering champion of liberty and opportunity and a tireless proponent of unity and progress. He spoke out for those who were silenced. He stood up for those who were oppressed. Most importantly, he took action, over and over again, in the face of clear threats and grave violence. His words and deeds prodded the conscience of a nation that had long failed to deliver on the promises set forth in its founding documents. And In the midst of what he had called a “long night of racial injustice,” he and countless other brave men, women, and children swept away Jim Crow, tore down barriers to the ballot box and enshrined new protections of freedom and dignity in our codes of law. The victories of the Civil Rights Movement were extraordinary achievements and it is fitting that we celebrate them today. But even more than celebrate, it is fitting that we act. Dr. King knew that complacency and apathy were as dangerous to the mind as a billy club or fire hose to the body. He knew that progress was not inevitable, but belonged instead to those willing to seize the moment, and that, as he stated so eloquently in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King’s words and deeds – and those of the millions who stood with him – are not vestiges of history, but timeless calls to action.
That call – that mission – has animated the Department of Justice since the inception of this Administration and it fuels our ongoing work to ensure that everyone in this country can achieve the full blessings of American life. Our revitalized Civil Rights Division – the conscience of the department, led by the outstanding Vanita Gupta – is committed to ensuring that access to the ballot box is as fair and unencumbered as Dr. King dreamed it would be. Wherever the franchise is being diminished – whether through historical barriers or newly erected ones – we stand prepared to use every tool at our disposal to protect the sacred American right to vote. The Civil Rights Division is making significant progress bringing criminal civil rights cases, as well. Over the course of this Administration, we have filed more criminal civil rights cases and prosecuted and convicted more defendants on hate crimes charges than at any other point in the Justice Department’s history. And we’re working to protect civil rights within criminal justice, in part by strengthening relationships between law enforcement and the communities we serve and ensuring constitutional policing across the country. We have launched a variety of new programs and innovative efforts at the local level – including my own six-city listening tour – to promote community policing and to build the relationships of trust that are so vital to effective law enforcement.
More broadly, we are working to ensure the fundamental fairness of the criminal justice system. At the federal level, we are continuing to implement the “Smart on Crime” initiative – a bold reorientation of our prosecutorial approach that Attorney General Holder initiated in 2013. In its first two years, Smart on Crime has not only been a bipartisan rallying point, but also a resounding success, with federal prosecutors using their resources conscientiously to bring the most serious wrongdoers to justice and with the overall crime rate declining in tandem with the overall incarceration rate for the first time in four decades. But for fairness to be consistent and to have meaning, we have to look at every stage of the criminal justice process. That is why we are working to end the school-to-prison pipeline to keep our children on the right path and out of the criminal justice system. That is why we are investing in diversion and treatment programs that take an evidence-based approach to public health and criminal justice. And that is why we are making sure that formerly incarcerated individuals have the tools and resources they need to successfully rejoin society and contribute to their communities. We recently partnered with the Department of Education to extend Pell Grant support to some incarcerated individuals so that they can pursue an education that will not only reduce their likelihood of recidivism, but also throw open doors to opportunity.
This is vital and in some cases life-changing work, but as you know all too well, we still have a long way to go. Even today, with the progress we have made, we hear concerns so strikingly similar to the early days of the civil rights movement. As I travel this great nation of ours I speak to people afraid to turn to law enforcement for help and thus stranded between fear and violence. I hear from people who see the right to vote – the fundamental way in which we determine our destiny – becoming part of an elusive shell game and held just out of reach. I hear from those who worry that a country founded on the freedom of all religions may devolve into one diminished by a fear of some religions. And I hear the question – how far, in fact, have we actually come?
Yes, these are difficult times. But my friends, these issues have always been hard. We have always had to move forward, with no guarantees of success. And we have always faced resistance. That too, is the human condition. But we have prevailed before and will prevail again. And it is the challenge of every generation to learn this lesson and follow the path that keeps the dream alive.
That is why it is so fitting that on a day dedicated to justice, decency and equal opportunity, we are gathered by an organization called the National Action Network – because progress is never passive. Progress does not simply arrive. Instead, in this extraordinary nation created by and for the people, it is the product of a steady drumbeat of marching feet. It is the result of a sustained campaign through hardship and oppression. As President Obama said in his final State of the Union address last week, “Progress is not inevitable. It is the result of choices we make together.”
At a time when nothing about their success seemed foreordained, the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement chose to keep going. After each night in jail; after each thud of a billy club; after each cross burning and church bombing, Dr. King and his followers confronted their doubts and fears and chose to march on. Rosa Parks chose to take her seat on a segregated bus. John Lewis chose to take that first step onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Time and time again, no matter how tired or bloodied they were, the men and women of the Civil Rights Movement summoned their courage, invoked their faith, and chose to take that next step, no matter what lay ahead.
And so, as we come together to celebrate the life of Dr. King, and as we seek to apply his lessons to the challenges we face today, here is the question facing all of us: what will we choose? When we witness discrimination against others, what will we choose? When we see the right to vote rolled back, what will we choose? When we hear voices saying that we should be satisfied with the progress we have already made – that we have achieved enough – what will we choose? Will we choose to remain silent? Will we choose to stand aside and quietly acquiesce to the forces of apathy and inertia? Or will we choose to remember that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”? Will we choose to keep this country marching towards freedom? Will we choose to stand up and speak out against the voices of bigotry and prejudice? Will we choose love over hate?
I commit to you now that this Department of Justice will always choose to act. We choose to act to ensure that the promise of America – the equality and opportunity of America – is within the grasp of all Americans. We choose to act to lift up the essential humanity and equal rights of every American, regardless of what they look like, where they live, whom they love or the God they worship. We choose to act – on behalf of those who have been left out and left behind.
This does not mean that the road ahead will be easy for any of us. I wish that I could bring tolerance to every heart and humanity to every soul. But while I cannot guarantee the absence of prejudice – I can guarantee the presence of justice.
As I stand here in the company of so many determined advocates and foot soldiers of justice, I am optimistic about all that we will achieve, and I am excited about the road ahead that we will travel together. Thank you for your dedication to this mission. Thank you for your partnership in this cause. And thank you for all that you have done, and all that you will continue to do, to make that dream – our dream; Dr. King’s dream – a reality for all.