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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at the Civil Rights Division’s Virtual Program: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Hello, everyone.

It is my pleasure to welcome you, on behalf of the Department of Justice and our Civil Rights Division, to this convening honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As we commemorate what would have been Dr. King’s 93rd birthday, it is a fitting time to reflect on the tireless conviction and courage that defined his work and his life, and on the many lessons he continues to teach us. 

One lesson, particularly relevant to our work at the Justice Department, is that: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

We know that progress in our democracy is not – and has never been – steady. Instead, it demands constant vigilance. Our own history here at the Justice Department makes that clear.

As I have noted several times before, protecting civil rights was one of the founding purposes of the Justice Department over 150 years ago.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War and in the midst of Reconstruction, the department’s first principal task was to secure the civil rights promised by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.  This meant confronting the Ku Klux Klan, which used violence and threats of violence to prevent Black Americans from exercising their right to vote.

It would be almost a century after Reconstruction before Congress again passed first major civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the Civil Rights Division within the department, with the mission “to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society.”

Dr. King and the civil rights movement’s persistent call to action led to the passage of subsequent laws — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Their extraordinary efforts to get these laws enacted gave the Justice Department some of our most important tools with which to protect Americans’ civil rights.

Roughly 20 years after the Civil Rights Division was created, Drew Days — an attorney who began his legal career working with Dr. King to combat housing discrimination in Chicago, and later worked as first Assistant Counsel for the Legal Defense Fund — became the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. 

Drew was the first person who had worked as a civil rights attorney outside the department, and the first Black person, to lead the Civil Rights Division – or any DOJ division, for that matter.

As Assistant Attorney General, Drew aggressively enforced the civil rights laws. He also served as an important mentor to me during and after my first stint at DOJ, as well as to Lani Guinier — who worked for Drew at the department and went on to a distinguished career in academia and civil rights advocacy, and whose passing we mourn this week.

Drew Days was the first, but not the last, outstanding civil rights organization alum to lead the Civil Rights Division. Deval Patrick, Bill Lann Lee and Jocelyn Samuels – among others – followed in his footsteps.

I am proud that DOJ continues that tradition today — with Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, as well as with Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who is herself a former head of the Civil Rights Division. What a great leadership team we have!

In our tenure here at the department, the mission to protect civil rights remains urgent.

We remember the words of Dr. King that “progress is not automatic or inevitable,” and that every step requires “the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

We remember this as we work to protect the civil rights of every person.

We remember this as we use every authority we have to protect the right of every eligible citizen to vote.

We remember this as we use all the tools at our disposal to deter, prevent, and prosecute hate crimes.

We remember this as we seek to advance environmental justice, to make equal access to justice a reality for all Americans, and to address inequities in the criminal justice system.

And we remember the obligation we have to protect Americans’ civil rights and liberties in all of the work we do — in every investigation and every case, and as we fulfill every one of our responsibilities.

I am proud of how the Justice Department has worked to protect civil rights over the past 10 months, but we are under no illusions about the enormity of the work we have left to do.

I would be remiss if I did not highlight the challenges we face in the effort to protect voting rights.

As you all know too well, the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in the Shelby County case effectively eliminated the preclearance protections of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which had been the department’s most effective tool for protecting voting rights over the past half-century. Subsequent decisions have substantially narrowed the reach of Section 2 as well.

Since those decisions, there has been a dramatic increase in legislative enactments that make it harder for millions of eligible voters to vote and to elect representatives of their own choosing. 

The Department of Justice has and will continue to do all it can to protect voting rights with the enforcement powers we have. 

But it is essential that Congress act to give the department the powers we need to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts.

In an editorial published after his death, the great John Lewis recalled another important lesson taught by Dr. King: “He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something.”

I repeat those words often because the Justice Department has the same moral obligation. So, we will continue to stand up, speak up, speak out and act.  

And we will continue to work alongside all of you to advance the ideals to which Dr. King dedicated his life.

Thank you for joining us today.

Civil Rights
Voting and Elections
Updated January 13, 2022