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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Deliver Remarks on Bloody Sunday at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama


Selma, AL
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Good morning. Thank you, Pastor Culliver, for having me today. And thank you for having Kristen Clarke, our great Civil Rights Assistant Attorney General.

We are so grateful to be here with this congregation and this community. 

The Justice Department owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the courageous activists who marched here in Selma 59 years ago. And to those who will march today. 

There are many things that are open to debate in America. One thing that must not be open for debate is the right of all eligible citizens to vote and to have their vote counted.

The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all others flow. It is a right that members of this community bled for.

And yet, progress in protecting the right to vote — especially for Black Americans — has never been steady.

Indeed, throughout our country’s history — before Bloody Sunday, and after — the right to vote in America has been under attack. 

It was under attack in the wake of the Civil War and amidst Reconstruction, when white supremacists used violence and threats of violence to stop Black Americans from exercising their right to vote. 

It was at that time that the Department of Justice was founded, with the principal purpose of protecting the rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. And in those first years the Justice Department was founded, it by successfully prosecuting more than a thousand members of the Ku Klux Klan.  

But the right to vote was still under attack nearly a century later, when Black residents trying to register to vote in this county, and in jurisdictions across the country, were required to take nearly impossible tests that were designed to ensure that they fail. 

And the right to vote was under attack on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when civil rights activists set out to march from Selma to Montgomery and were met with horrific violence.

The marchers’ courage helped usher into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave the Justice Department important authorities to protect the right to vote. 

Because of that law, between 1965 and 2006, the Justice Department was able to block more than 1,200 restrictive voting changes in jurisdictions with a history of suppressing the vote. 

But as you well know, court decisions in recent years have drastically weakened the protections of the Voting Rights Act that marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge bled for 59 years ago. 

And since those decisions, there has been a dramatic increase in legislative measures that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to vote and to elect the representatives of their choice.

Those measures include practices and procedures that make voting more difficult; redistricting maps that disadvantage minorities; and changes in voting administration that diminish the authority of locally elected or nonpartisan election administrators.

Such measures threaten the foundation of our system of government.

Some have even suggested giving state legislatures the power to set aside the choice of the voters themselves.

That is not the way a representative democracy is supposed to work.

The right to vote is still under attack.

And that is why the Justice Department is fighting back.

That is why, one of the first things I did as Attorney General was to double the number of lawyers in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division. 

That is why we are challenging efforts by states and jurisdictions to implement discriminatory, burdensome, and unnecessary restrictions on access to the ballot, including those related to mail-in voting, the use of drop boxes, and voter ID requirements.

That is why we are working to block the adoption of discriminatory redistricting plans that dilute the vote of Black voters and other voters of color.

We are holding accountable jurisdictions that fail to provide accessible vote centers for voters with disabilities.

We are defending the ability of private individuals — not just the government — to bring lawsuits under the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

We are joining with community groups and civil rights organizations across the country by intervening in cases to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on voter intimidation. And to defend the Act’s bar against voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race or color.   

There is so much more to do. 

Yet, these are not the only threats our democracy is facing.

Today, threats to the right to vote have expanded to target not just the voters themselves, but the citizens we rely on to fairly administer voting. Not just elected officials, not just paid administrators, but also the local volunteers who ensure that voting is available in every precinct.

That is why I launched the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force to combat threats against election workers.

That is why we are aggressively investigating and prosecuting those who threaten election workers with violence. 

Just last Tuesday, for example, an Indiana man pled guilty to threatening to kill an election worker in Michigan, falsely claiming that the worker had “frauded out America of a real election.” And just last Thursday, we arrested a California man who transmitted a violent threat against an Arizona election official, while falsely accusing that official of “cheating the election.”

Our democracy cannot function if the public servants and civic-minded citizens who administer our elections fear for their lives.

The Justice Department recognizes the urgency of this moment.

Defending democracy was the Justice Department’s founding purpose. And it is the foundation of everything we do today.

We recognize that community and civic leaders here, and across the country, are advancing that work, day in, and day out.

Our commitment to you is that we will never stop working with you, and for you, to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts.

In an editorial published shortly after his death — and 55 years after he led marchers to the Edmund Pettus Bridge — John Lewis recalled an important lesson taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Democracy is not a state,” he said. “It is an act. And each generation must do its part.”

We promise you that we will do our part.

This generation’s Justice Department knows that you are doing your part.

We know that our democracy depends on it.

Thank you.

Civil Rights
Voting and Elections
Updated March 3, 2024