Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you for that warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here this afternoon and a privilege to join so many dedicated public servants, passionate advocates and inspiring citizens who have devoted their lives and their professional careers to the fight for equal rights and equal justice. I am honored to share the stage with Congressman [John] Lewis – a legend in the history of the Civil Rights Movement and a lifelong champion of human rights. And I want to thank President [Barack] Obama and the White House staff for making this commemoration possible.
Just over five decades ago, in the aftermath of a Bloody Sunday that captured the attention of a nation and awakened the conscience of its people, President Lyndon Johnson addressed the United States to discuss a matter of great importance – to speak, he said, for “the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.” He described a voting system not only in the South, but throughout the country, that was rife with inequity and injustice. He discussed the unalienable rights that so many men, women and children had fought and died to achieve. And he declared that their sacrifices – and the words of the Constitution – demanded that our country right a terrible wrong, beginning with the passage of a bill to ensure the right to vote for every American.
What he was invoking was nothing less than the soul of our democracy – the belief that it is a democracy that belongs equally to all Americans and that all Americans equally must have the right to full participation in this great democracy of ours.
From the moment it was passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act ushered in a new era of more inclusive democracy in this country. Its impact was swift and sweeping – affirming a right that had too long been subject to debate; establishing protections to which every citizen is unambiguously entitled; and codifying into law the foremost American ideal: that all are created equal. The increased exercise of that most fundamental, most American of rights brought forth a blossoming of democracy that expanded our electorate and inspired the world. Minority voter registration soared, diversity among elected officials began to increase and voices that had long been silenced were finally – and justly – heard. And in the years since, through four overwhelming bipartisan reauthorizations in Congress and the signatures of four Republican presidents, the government of the United States – often led by the Department of Justice and supported by our outstanding Civil Rights Division – worked tirelessly to enforce the act’s provisions, to achieve its goals and to expand its reach to every citizen in every county across the nation. There can be no doubt that, because of the Voting Rights Act, the United States and its people have made once-unimaginable progress.
This essential freedom, this precious right, like all that we treasure, was hard fought and hard won. And it is the lesson of every generation that the price of freedom is constant vigilance, because opponents of free and fair access to the voting booth have neither retreated nor surrendered. Since the very beginning and at every step, organized opposition has worked to set us back – to take advantage of apathy, discord and disarray, and to restrict the rights that are due to all Americans: the right to representation; the right to access the franchise; the right to have a say – and therefore a stake – in the direction of this country; and the right, underlying all others, to be viewed as a full and equal citizen. The forces of obstruction are as old as the rights they have fought to deny.
They too, have taken to the courts. Just two years ago, in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, the United States Supreme Court dealt the most serious blow the Voting Rights Act had experienced in its five-decade history. The case at issue undermined Section 5 of the act – a key provision that had allowed the federal government to review changes in voting laws and procedures before they went into effect in jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchisement. The Supreme Court’s decision turned the success of the Voting Rights Act against itself, ruling that, because of the progress that had been made in the covered jurisdictions – thanks in part to some of the extraordinary people in this room today – the Voting Rights Act could no longer be applied as it was written.
There is no doubt that the Shelby County decision represented a serious setback. As Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg wrote in her powerful dissenting opinion, “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work…is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” In the aftermath of the decision, various states moved to implement or enact new and burdensome voting restrictions – including some that would previously have been subject to pre-clearance. That’s why my predecessor, Attorney General Eric Holder, pledged that the Department of Justice would “take swift enforcement action – using every legal tool that remains available to us – against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.” And that is exactly what we have done.
In fact, over the course of the Obama Administration, the Justice Department has participated in more than 100 voting cases. We have stood up for the rights of African-Americans, Spanish speakers and countless other individuals who have faced obstacles to casting their ballots. In the wake of Shelby County, we successfully challenged Texas’s strict photo identification requirement for voting – and I’m proud to tell you that just yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a unanimous opinion agreeing with us that the law had a discriminatory effect in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Separately, we have sued to block two of Texas’s statewide redistricting plans. And in my home state of North Carolina, we are challenging several provisions of a state law that, among other things, cut down on early voting and eliminated same-day registration. All three of those cases involved intensive, multi-week trials, and the dedicated women and men of our Voting Section deserve highest praise for their outstanding work and for the unmistakable message they have sent: that the Department of Justice will use every tool, exercise every means and do everything within our power to protect the sacred American right to vote.
That effort has continued on a variety of fronts. We are working with Congress on legislative proposals to restore the Voting Rights Act. We have filed amicus briefs and statements of interest in a wide range of private Voting Rights Act lawsuits, including major challenges to restrictive voting laws in Ohio and Wisconsin. We sent monitors and observers to 28 jurisdictions across 18 states for the November 2014 general election – in a fair and nonpartisan manner – to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act. We have consulted with tribal leaders and proposed new legislation that would ease access to polling places for those living on Indian reservations, in Alaska Native villages or on other tribal lands. And we have aggressively enforced the National Voter Registration Act to protect those registering to vote, as well as the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to defend the rights of our services members, their families and United States citizens living abroad, and have proposed new amendments to provide greater protections to military and overseas voters.
Let me be clear: neither I, nor the Department of Justice that I am proud to lead, will ever stand down from our responsibility to ensure the rights of every American. We will remain vigilant against new statutes and policies that encroach on the full and fair exercise of the franchise. We will remain on guard against those seeking to dismantle the provisions of our laws and the promise they represent. And we will remain determined to push back against this creeping, constant, insidious threat to the core values of our nation. If indeed the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, as I believe that it does, then the law is the counterweight that keeps its course true.
After all, as heroes like Congressman Lewis know all too well, and as all of you here in this room understand, there is nothing inevitable about progress. You have all demonstrated time and again that you recognize the importance of our shared efforts. Particularly in this country – a nation designed both by and for the people – the future has always belonged to those who dare to imagine it; who decide to build it; and who resolve to protect it from those who might tear it down. That is why it is incumbent on all of us – from every political background and every geographic community; from every legislative office and every governors’ mansion; from the halls of Congress to the streets of this nation – to stand up, to speak out and to make clear that no end is worth the means of disenfranchisement; no political advantage is worth the erosion of our freedoms; and no small-minded policy is worth the cheapening of our democracy. As President Johnson said when he introduced the Voting Rights Act, “There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights to millions of Americans.”
Five decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act – more than 150 years after human beings held in bondage achieved Emancipation; nearly a century after women viewed as chattel won the 19th Amendment; and long after a diverse but united Civil Rights Movement marched – bloodied, but unbowed – through a long night of racial injustice – our march must continue. Our hope must endure. And our work must go on. Our path forward will not be easy. It never has been. But let me tell you what I know. We cannot guarantee the absence of discrimination or the end of ill will. But we can guarantee the presence of justice. We can guarantee the spread of opportunity. We can guarantee that all of us here today and Americans of strong principle and deep convictions across the country will stay united, keep the faith and continue the march, until the greatness of this country is made real for every American. As I look out over this distinguished gathering, I cannot help feeling optimistic about the road ahead.
Thank you, once again, for your dedication to this cause; for your commitment to this country; and for your devotion to all its citizens. I look forward to the work we will do together in the service of our shared mission in the days and years to come.