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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at the Justice Department’s Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Good afternoon.

Thank you, Kevonne, for that introduction, and for your leadership of the Office for Civil Rights in the Office of Justice Programs.

I am honored to welcome everyone to this program marking the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Sixty-one years ago, our country not only watched, but finally truly saw, the generations-long struggle by Black Americans to claim the rights guaranteed them by the Constitution.

In May of 1963, the country saw young, nonviolent protesters — participating in a desegregation campaign in Birmingham, Alabama — face heinous violence at the direction of Bull Connor.

The country saw public safety officers blast students and organizers with water from firehoses so powerful that they could rip the bark off trees.

The country saw children, who sought only to be treated as equal under the law, loaded into school buses and taken to jail.

And as the country finally began to see that the treatment of its Black citizens undermined its founding promise of equality under the law, the United States Justice Department saw it, too.

So, on a Saturday in May of 1963, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, for whom this building is named, called a meeting here at the Justice Department.

By the end of the five-hour meeting — covering everything from education to employment to public accommodations — the Attorney General asked Justice Department lawyers to draft a civil rights bill.

Just two days later, by Monday night, they had one.

And just over a year later, on July 2, 1964 — after a hard-fought struggle in Congress, and across the country — the bill was signed into law.

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

  • It outlawed segregation in public accommodations;
  • It banned discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, and national origin in the workplace and at schools; and
  • It banned certain barriers to voting and laid the groundwork for future voting rights legislation.

The Act transformed our country.

It also gave the Justice Department some of its most important tools to protect Americans’ civil rights.

The 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 presents an important moment to reflect on why we needed this law in 1964. And why we still need it today.

Although there is so much for us to be proud of on this anniversary, we know there is so much more to do.

Over half a century has passed, but many of the challenges that necessitated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are still with us.

Over the past three years, the Justice Department has exercised our authorities under the Act:

  • To participate in more than 130 school desegregation cases across the country;
  • To protect students from harassment based on race and sex in schools in communities ranging from Vermont and Kentucky to Wyoming and Kansas.
  • To end practices in Lowndes County, Alabama, that disproportionally exposed the county’s Black residents to raw sewage;
  • To protect voters in Arizona from an unlawful voter registration requirement;
  • To pursue justice for female corrections officers who faced sexual harassment in the workplace in Alabama;
  • To pursue justice for Black firefighter candidates who faced discriminatory hiring practices in Georgia;
  • To hold accountable the owners and operators of a hotel in South Dakota that effectively banned Native Americans from the property.
  • And to facilitate inter-community dialogue and trainings under the auspices of the Department’s Community Relations Service — which was created by the Civil Rights Act.

These examples are just a fraction of the work the Justice Department has been doing to enforce the protections of the Civil Rights Act.

These examples are also just a fraction of the attempts to undermine civil rights protections that we are currently confronting.

Today, it is not just individual civil rights that are under attack. We are also seeing pervasive attacks on the laws that guarantee those rights. And we are seeing a disturbing rise in attacks on the institutions and the people who are charged with enforcing those laws.

We see this most clearly when it comes to voting rights.

The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all others flow.

But around the country, there has been an increase in legislative measures that make it harder for eligible voters to vote, to have those votes counted, and to elect the representatives of their choice. Some have even suggested giving state legislatures the power to set aside the choice of the voters themselves.

Those efforts threaten the very foundation of our system of government.

Efforts to undermine the right to vote have also expanded to include a disturbing rise in threats of violence against the citizens we rely on to fairly administer voting — state and county elected officials, career administrators, and even volunteer poll workers.

These threats of violence against those who serve the public come alongside continued violence and threats of violence directed at people solely because of who they are, where they are from, what they look like, whom they love, how they worship, or what they believe.

This is not the way our democracy is supposed to work.

The promise of our democracy is that individuals will not have to fear that the color of their skin, or where they work, or who they are, will make them targets of violence.

The promise of our democracy is that public servants will be able do their jobs without fearing for their safety.

The promise of our democracy is that all people will be protected in the exercise of their civil rights, and in the peaceful expression of their opinions, beliefs, and ideas.

In a democracy, people vote, argue, and debate — often loudly — in order to achieve the policy outcomes they desire.

But the promise of our democracy is that people will not employ violence to affect those outcomes.

The promise of our democracy is that every one of our citizens will recognize the inherent dignity and equality of every other.

And critically, the promise of our democracy is that all people will be protected and treated equally under the law.

Working to fulfill that promise is part of the historical inheritance of this Department.

The Justice Department’s first principal task upon its founding in the wake of the Civil War in 1870 was to protect the civil rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. This meant confronting white supremacists who used extraordinary violence and threats of violence to prevent Black Americans from exercising their voting rights.

In the next few years, DOJ lawyers successfully prosecuted hundreds of members of the Ku Klux Klan. Those efforts helped to secure a brief period of meaningful Black voting rights in parts of the former Confederacy.

But, the federal commitment to protecting Black voting rights waned as Reconstruction drew to a close.

Many people in this room will tell you that I speak often about the importance of the Justice Department’s founding, and about how its charge — to protect the civil rights of all Americans — continues to guide us to this day. But the near-century of inaction that followed the Department’s founding, in which the federal government failed to meaningfully protect civil rights, is also a history we must remember.

It is a history we must never repeat.

And that is why this program is so important.

We have seen attacks on civil rights before. We have seen the courageous struggle of Americans who successfully moved this country closer to its promise. And we have seen the backlash against those efforts.

Since its founding, the Justice Department has been at its best when it stands firmly on the side of protecting civil rights.

That is the legacy we recommit ourselves to today.

That legacy is an important reason why I returned to the Justice Department three and a half years ago, after serving for more than two decades as a judge.

I loved being a judge.

But my job as a judge was to decide only the cases that were randomly assigned to me, faithfully applying the law to the facts, and in that way to do my part to ensure the rule of law.

But in 2020, along with the rest of the country and the world, I watched as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd were senselessly taken from their loved ones and their communities.

I know that the feeling of despair I felt at that time reflected just a fraction of the grief and devastation felt — and still felt — by their families and by Black Americans all across this country.

But in the wake of those tragedies, I questioned whether what I was doing with the time given to me was enough.

So, when given the chance, I came back to the Justice Department.

I came back to this place, with its history of stepping up for equal justice when it was needed the most.

And that is what this Justice Department is doing today.

As we continue to enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we are using every authority we have to protect civil rights.

We are using our authorities to ensure constitutional policing by pursuing accountability on both the individual and systemic level.

We are doing everything in our power to defend reproductive rights protected by federal law.

We are enforcing the laws prohibiting lending discrimination, and we are securing relief for victims of that discrimination.

We are using every authority we have to protect the right to vote.

We are aggressively disrupting, investigating, and prosecuting the hate crimes that victimize individuals and terrorize entire communities. And we are bringing the perpetrators of those crimes to justice.

We are using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other authorities to protect the rights of LGBTQ Americans to live free from discrimination, harassment, and violence.

And we are prosecuting threats of violence that target the public servants who administer our elections and who ensure the functioning of our democracy.

We will not back down in our effort to defend civil rights and to defend our democracy.

We recognize the challenges of this moment.

But we have faced such challenges before.

And with the help — and often the push we needed — from the civil rights community, we have risen to meet them.

Ensuring the rule of law and making real the promise of equal justice under law are the principles upon which this Department was founded.

They are the principles the Civil Rights Act of 1964 affirmed 60 years ago.

And they are the principles for which the United States Department of Justice stands today.

During today’s program, you will hear more about what the Justice Department is doing to continue the work of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I want to express my gratitude to the public servants across the Department who advance that work, particularly the Civil Rights Division, led by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke; the Community Relations Service, led by Component Head Justin Lock; and the Office on Justice Programs, led by Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon. I also want to thank Shaylyn Cochran in my office for her outstanding work leading the committee that put together today’s event and for her effort every day helping to lead our work to protect civil rights.

And I am deeply grateful to the Department’s leadership team, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Acting Associate Attorney General Ben Mizer, both of whom you’ll hear from in just a moment.

I am proud to work with all of you.

And now I would now like to ask Deputy Attorney General Monaco for her remarks.

Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated July 9, 2024