Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, for that generous introduction, and for your outstanding leadership of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). I also want to thank Secretary John King for helping to host this conference, and for all that he does for HBCUs at the Department of Education. I want to acknowledge our tremendous panelists for their time and expertise, including my colleagues Nancy Rodriguez, Director of the National Institute of Justice, and Calvin Hodnett, the Justice Department’s special advisor for campus public safety. And of course, I want to thank the many HBCU leaders, faculty members, and students who are here today. You are the lifeblood of our nation’s historically black colleges and universities, and together, you are writing a new chapter in HBCUs’ proud legacy of serving, enriching, and empowering not only African Americans, but all Americans.
As this group well knows, HBCUs have been instrumental in our nation’s long and halting march towards equality for all, and have been the backbone of African American educational and economic life since before the Civil War. They trained leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker. And during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, HBCU students led the way – from the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was founded at my parents’ alma mater, Shaw University; to the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960, which began when four young men from North Carolina A&T walked into a segregated Woolworth’s in Greensboro and asked to be served like anyone else. The Greensboro Four, as they came to be known, were met with scorn and derision. But they persisted with courage and dignity – and today, one of the stools they sat on is displayed in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture here in Washington.
That stool holds a particular significance for me – not just because I was born in Greensboro the year before the Woolworth’s sit-in, and not just because my father allowed student activists to meet in the basement of his church. And not just because this audacious act of civil disobedience changed the very neighborhoods and school systems I grew up in. What that stool signifies for me is the ordinary individual’s ability to strike a blow for justice. It reminds me that in a democracy such as ours, an anonymous college student can have as much of an impact as a well-known senator. And it reminds me that our country, for all of its faults and shortcomings, is capable of making good on its founding promises, if only the people demand it.
These are the great lessons of the civil rights movement, lessons taught to us in no small part by countless HBCU students who risked their lives for the cause of justice. And these are the lessons we must rely upon again today, as we confront the challenges of our own time – especially the challenge of frayed relationships between law enforcement officers and citizens of color. On this issue, the pain of the minority community is as old as our country and as recent as the evening news. Viral videos of lives lost underscore the immediacy of the issue. But these images, as painful as they are, have allowed us to move beyond the denial or inability to understand of the past, to bring the minority experience into the forefront. These times are akin to the civil rights era of 50 years ago, when the television cameras illuminated the stark differences in our government’s treatment of black and white citizens. And as painful as these images are, they have allowed us to have important conversations with community members and with law enforcement. These conversations are difficult, but necessary. And they reveal that at the end of the day, no matter who we are or what we look like, we all want the same thing: to be understood not as stereotypes, but as individual human beings; to live lives of dignity and purpose; and to raise our children in safety and security.
We cannot afford to lose sight of that common bond. As Barbara Jordan – an HBCU alumna, and one of my personal heroes – once put it: “Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation?” Fostering that spirit – and healing those divisions – must be the work of our time, and I believe that all of us have a responsibility to help carry that effort forward. That is why building trust between communities and law enforcement has been one of the top priorities of my tenure as Attorney General. I have pursued that work in a number of ways – from conducting a 12-city Community Policing Tour; to convening a series of regional Justice Forums; to continuing the Justice Department’s efforts to give law enforcement agencies the training and equipment they need to serve their communities fairly and effectively.
These are all important efforts, but I am well aware that ultimately, change has to come from within communities. And it is here that I think HBCUs can play – and in many cases are already playing – an outstanding part in working to ensure that every American enjoys a life of safety and dignity. They are think tanks for our best and brightest young people, and they are a repository of wisdom in their faculty and staff. They are the thought leaders of today. I saw an inspiring example of that work earlier this month, when I attended a forum at Howard University. During the meeting, police officers and young people gathered to discuss everything from how young adults perceive law enforcement, to the role that young people can play in diversifying and building the law enforcement agencies of the 21st century. It was an honest and respectful gathering, and it exemplified HBCUs’ unique ability to convene a wide range of stakeholders; to forge innovative coalitions; and to drive a meaningful and productive discussion about the steps we need to take together to ensure that we continue making progress toward a brighter and more united future.
That forum represents exactly the kind of work HBCUs are doing throughout the nation – the work that they have done throughout their illustrious history, the work that we need them to continue doing today. They serve as safe spaces for courageous conversations. They use their stature and clout to champion just policies and to advocate for urgent reforms. And above all, they train the activists of today and the leaders of tomorrow. The conscience of our nation cannot rest until all Americans feel respected and protected by our laws – and our nation has looked again and again to the graduates of HBCUs to voice hard truths, bridge stark divides and lead courageous change.
Ultimately, that is what the issue of community-police relations is all about: whether we will be content so long as so many of our fellow Americans feel that the law works not for them, but against them. We have faced that question at so many junctures in our past. And every time, we have offered the same answer. It is the answer given by the two Florida A&M University students who began a bus boycott in Tallahassee in 1956. It is the answer given by the four North Carolina A&T students who sat at a lunch counter where they were not welcome day after day. It is the answer given by a young Fisk University graduate named John Lewis when he led a march across a bridge in Selma. And it is the answer that young people are offering with increasing conviction throughout our country today: that no, we will not be content – we will not be satisfied – until the promise of liberty and justice is made real for all who call this great country home.
I know that many of you are working to make that promise real in your own communities, and I want to thank you – students, faculty, and administrators alike – for your contributions to the work of our time. I urge you to continue seeking ways to be a voice for justice in our society – not just on your campuses, but also beyond them. And I pledge that as you continue that sacred work, you will always have a willing partner and a steadfast ally in this Attorney General. Thank you.