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Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Awards Ceremony


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery


Thank you, John for that kind introduction, and thank you for your service to this Department.  You’ve done a great job of ensuring that the trains run on time while we wait for my former colleagues in the Senate to act.


Of course I also want to recognize all of our award recipients, our Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, and division veterans Loretta King and Jim Turner, who are here with us.


On behalf of President Trump, I want to thank everyone here for your efforts to secure the rights of the American people.  Over the weekend, the President visited the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and he paid tribute to some of the heroes of the civil rights movement, like Dr. King, James Meredith, and Medgar Evers.  As he put it, “we strive to be worthy of their sacrifice…We want our country to be a place where every child, from every background, can grow up free from fear, innocent of hatred, and surrounded by love, opportunity, and hope.”


That’s a vision we should all support.


Today we are gathered to celebrate those who have made especially important contributions to the Department’s Civil Rights Division.  We also celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Division’s creation.


I understand that there will be a panel discussion about the history of the Division.  There is a lot to talk about.


Securing the rights of every American is not just the first duty of this Department; it’s the first duty of this government. 


Equal treatment under the law is a fundamental pillar upon which our republic rests.  This is the heritage we have received.  And with your work we have not just received it, but with courage and effort, you have advanced that ideal.


I appreciate the work of every single member of the Department of Justice family.  But the work of this Division is especially important to this country.  It is at the core of who we are, and it helps us to live up to the ideals of our Founders.


Sixty years ago, the creation of the Civil Rights Division was necessary.  And since then, it has proven its worth.


This Division has been at the forefront of our efforts to ensure equality for all: desegregating schools; ensuring equal opportunity in the workplace; fighting discrimination in housing; protecting the rights of people with disabilities, and in many other ways.


I want each of you to know that I understand what is at stake on these issues, because I have seen the progress up close and personal. Importantly, I have seen raw, unvarnished, discrimination against a whole people because of the color of their skin. It was wrong then and wrong now.


I was born in a town called Selma.  When the Civil Rights Division was founded, I was a kid attending all-white, public segregated schools.  I saw evidence of discrimination virtually every day.


As a teenager, I read widely and I began to get involved in politics.  In college, I campaigned against Governor George Wallace.


When I joined the Department of Justice and became a U.S. Attorney, I worked with state law enforcement to prosecute the murderers of Michael Donald, a 19-year old African-American who was killed because of his race.


One night, Michael was walking home from a convenience store when he was abducted, beaten, and stabbed to death.  His killers hanged his body from a tree in Mobile.


At that time there was no federal death penalty, so I wanted the case prosecuted at the state level.  I felt that’s what was deserved.


The defendants were James Knowles, Benjamin Cox, and Henry Francis Hays, a second-generation member of the Ku Klux Klan.


Hayes became the first white man in Alabama executed for white-on-black crime since 1913.  And he was the only KKK member in the 20th Century executed for murdering an African-American.


When I became Attorney General of Alabama, I defended his death sentence in court.


Knowles and Cox both received life sentences.


The federal prosecution was led by the indomitable Barry Kowalski of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division.


The filing of a civil case against the KKK, led by Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, cost the Klan $7 million.  That bankrupted the Klan in Alabama.  They had to sign over the deed to their building in Tuscaloosa to Michael’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, who used it to buy her first house.


There is nothing I am more proud of than what we accomplished when I was a U.S. Attorney.  Now that I have the honor of serving as Attorney General, I am determined to see that the ideals of this Division are advanced and that there be no backsliding.  I have seen the world before CRT, and I have seen the transformation it has produced.  It was never easy. 


And I am so proud of the accomplishments we are celebrating today.


This year we brought the first prosecution under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act involving a victim targeted because of their gender identity.  We secured a guilty plea and a 49-year sentence in that case.


We also sent an experienced federal hate crimes lawyer to assist in the prosecution of a man charged with murdering a transgender high school student in Iowa.  That led to a guilty verdict last month.


This year alone, the Department has convicted more than 200 defendants for human trafficking violations, and we have prosecuted police officers who have violated the public’s trust and the law, as well as completing a host of painstaking investigations to ensure that justice is done.


That includes the 20-year sentence handed down last week for the officer who shot Walter Scott in the back.  I understand that Jared Fishman will be receiving the Walter Barnett award for his outstanding work on that case.  It’s an important case.  Police officers have a noble calling to serve and protect.  But those who enforce the law must abide by it, too, and we’re going to hold them accountable for that.


I’d also like to mention that we obtained a 20-year sentence for a man who conspired to attack a Muslim community in upstate New York, and a guilty plea from a man who plotted to blow up a Florida synagogue.


Each one of you has helped to make these successes possible.  You have furthered the work of this Department—and you have helped this country to live out our Founding ideals.


On behalf of the President and the entire Department of Justice, thank you for this noble work.  You have made this Department—and this country—proud.

Updated December 12, 2017