Remarks as prepared for delivery.
Thank you for the introduction and your leadership.
The year is 1870. Ulysses S. Grant is president. Emerging from our Civil War, the Department of Justice is established with a founding charge to protect the civil rights of black Americans. 2020 is the Department’s sesquicentennial.
“The theme of this year’s [Black History Month] observance, ‘African Americans and the Vote’”—the President’s Proclamation reminds us—coincides with [another] 150-year anniversary: the ratification of the 15th Amendment.” The Fifteenth Amendment provides that “The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” From its inception, the Justice Department set out to make the promise of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments a reality by, among other things, enforcing the Civil Rights Act of 1871, commonly, known as the “Anti‑Klan Act.” With citizenship and the vote, came the entry of blacks into the Congress—two black Senators representing Mississippi and black representatives from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.
That promising start was, as we all know, stunted, as the ignominious Black Codes and Jim Crow set in. With the Modern Civil rights Movement came the Civil Rights Division’s founding in 1957 and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Much has been said—and much more deserves to be said—about the modern Civil Rights Movement. It transformed America. That won’t be my topic today, however. Instead, I would like us to go back farther into our shared history.
Because Black History Month this year asks us to recall 1870, and because we are assembled inside the Department of Justice, itself, born that year, I thought Reconstruction would be a fitting subject. Specifically, I would like to discuss the lessons I believe we can take from what Reconstruction accomplished and what it did not accomplish: both in our roles as public servants at the Justice Department and as citizens.
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Inside my office at Main Justice is a framed page from Harper’s Weekly, dated April 22, 1865. Amidst advertisements for the “Best Farming Lands,” “Petroleum Stock,” and “Watches,” is an editorial drawing. Captioned “A Man Knows a Man,” it depicts a white Union soldier and a black Union solider, clasping hands, each using a crutch due to an amputated leg from battle. Each soldier says to the other: “Give me your hand, Comrade! We have each lost a Leg for the good cause; but thank God, we never lost Heart.” Published just a week after President Lincoln’s assassination, the drawing depicts the apex of the promise of the Civil War.
The patriotism and sacrifice of black and white soldiers alike had secured an end to slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment would be ratified by the end of the year, on December 6, 1865. Lincoln had campaigned in the Election of 1860 against the Supreme Court’s tragically incorrect legal holding in Dred Scott (1857) that blacks were not members of the American body politic—a wrong that Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment would right in 1868, by declaring that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States” are “citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
These rights, citizenship and an end to slavery, had taken hold in the popular consciousness. Although the Fourteenth Amendment also promised “equal protection of the laws” and the Fifteenth Amendment would, in 1870, prohibit denial of the vote on the basis of “race” or “previous condition of servitude,” I would suggest that these ideas—far more radical at the time—had not fully taken hold by the time they were introduced into the Constitution. Scholars have posited that the Reconstruction generation was more comfortable accepting so-called “political rights” for blacks than accepting “social rights,” such as marriage, integrated public accommodations, or schooling, and that—among political rights—voting was the most hotly contested. Each of the Northern States that held referenda on black suffrage in the years immediately after the Civil War rejected it. As to “social rights,” it took the death of Radical Republican leader Senator Charles Sumner to spur passage of the short‑lived (and unpopular) Civil Rights Act of 1875, which provided for equal treatment in public accommodations and public transportation and, in an early draft, would have desegregated schools.
The fact that these aspects of Reconstruction had not taken popular hold may explain how the nation could sit, idly, as States enacted systematic instruments to disenfranchise blacks, such as poll taxes and unfairly applied literacy tests. It may also explain why the generation that decided Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) did not realize that the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of “equal protection” took all segregation off-the-table, whether in a New Orleans, Louisiana railroad car or a Topeka, Kansas public school.
Whether I am correct or not about that, of this I am sure: the men depicted in that Harper’s Weekly editorial drawing would not have countenanced segregation or the vote denials that followed Reconstruction. Why? They had met as men. They had witnessed each other’s shared humanity.
The lesson that stands out from this is that societal change at the governmental level must be married with societal change at the individual, human, level. So, what should we do with that recognition?
First, this means applying, as I know each member of this Department does, our full energy and talents to the vigorous enforcement of the Constitution and our laws. By the end of the Department’s first year of existence (in 1870), over 270 indictments were pending against members of domestic terrorist groups, such as the KKK. In the Civil Rights Division today, under the Attorney General’s and Assistant Attorney General Dreiband’s leadership, we are building on this historical legacy by leveraging the panoply of civil and criminal statutes to protect all Americans, including black Americans. When two men recently terrorized a predominately black residential community in Mississippi with a cross burning, this Justice Department held them accountable, and they received significant terms of incarceration. When a black man with intellectual disabilities was kept in conditions of modern-day slavery and forced to labor in a South Carolina restaurant, the Department likewise was there, securing jail time and restitution for his coerced and uncompensated work. And, throughout the country, we are bringing civil litigation under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act and other laws to redress discrimination based on race and other protected grounds.
It is worth reminding ourselves of the awesome power—in the Civil Rights Division and in the other Divisions in which this audience works—that we wield on behalf of a nation of over 300 million, to ensure that this authority is used judiciously, and in a manner that furthers better human understanding among the public. Our challenge is to apply governmental power in a way that is mindful of the need to ensure that victims of discrimination are, to the greatest degree possible, viewed by their communities as individuals, as opposed to solely members of protected class, whether that is a racial group, ethnicity or religious identity. The more we can humanize those we serve and provide conditions of equal opportunity—through the thoughtful selection of policies, appropriate application of our legal tools, and the way we communicate about our work—I would suggest the greater our potential impact.
Second, what we do as citizens is just as critical. Participating in all manner of civic life around us—from voting, to charitable work, and community involvement. I recently moved to the Shaw neighborhood in Washington and, on a walk one Saturday, came across a statuary park for Carter G. Woodson. Despite thinking I had encountered the greats in black history, that Saturday my civic surroundings exposed a major blind spot. I had not appreciated that Woodson was the second black to receive his doctorate from Harvard University, after W.E.B. Du Bois (who I did know), and that if it were not for Woodson we almost certainly would not be gathered here today in celebration. The “Father of Black History,” Dr. Woodson lobbied for the creation of a February commemoration of black history, and he founded the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.” Although not recognized as Black History Month until President Ford did so in 1976, today’s program has its origins, in 1926, as National Negro History Week in the second week of February. February is selected to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Lincoln.
At an even more granular level, as citizens, regardless of our race or background, nearly every daily interaction creates an opportunity to further the status quo; to progress or, regrettably, to backslide. Even as he made his urgent call in June 1963 for new civil rights laws “at every level,” President Kennedy noted that the “law alone cannot make men see right.” Last year, at this event, the Attorney General, correctly, declared that “Black history is American history.” Let us therefore use today’s black history gathering to take up a personal challenge no matter our race, background, disability, to meet our fellow Americans’ common humanity—particularly those with a story unlike ours.
Here, I have to acknowledge the heavy influence of my family’s story. On my mother’s side, my family has roots in Louisiana dating, at least, to 1840. My mother lived in New Orleans in the shadow of Jim Crow from age two. (So that I may remain in good graces as a son, I won’t tell you what year that was.) De jure segregation in all aspects of life was in force until she left New Orleans for college, as it had been for her parents and grandparents. She was taught to appreciate the injustice of this arrangement but also instructed not to be bitter. When the family encountered white citizens, they strove to treat them with the basic human dignity that the family was so often denied. They never missed an election and they encouraged debate. Would General Eisenhower build on his victory abroad against Hitler by delivering Civil Rights at home, for example, or should votes be cast for Adlai Stevenson for president in 1952 and 1956? When they spoke of, or reflected on this country, they concentrated on its opportunities and ideals, not on indignities, secure in the knowledge that the country’s ideals would triumph. Candidly, however, the indignities they experienced are hard for me to fathom. I pray that I would have maintained their fortitude and their faith in America if I had endured their trials:
- Never has my name, as a grown man, been “Boy,” as it often was for my great-grandfather—a master carpenter.
- Never has an educator told me that an A-quality college paper could “not have been my work” on account of my color, as happened to my mother.
- Never did I proudly attend a Gold Star ceremony to honor my son who had fallen in WWII and be told to leave my seat, to march flight‑after‑flight to the top of the stadium, so that I could take my place behind a roped-off area for “colored mothers,” as my great‑grandmother did.
- Never has my race determined where I could live, as it did for my grandaunt and her husband. When purchasing their home, they moved into a subdivision for black residents that, while beautiful, sat at the outskirts of New Orleans—less than a football field away from the levees that guarded the below-sea-level-city. This meant that when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, and her husband made the decision—so as to protect his home and possessions from potential looting—not to evacuate despite our pleas, he perished. He drowned at home.
Many in this room in the black community likely faced similar obstacles, personally, or had friends and family members who did. In various degrees of severity, though, all of us have faced—either here in America, or in the countries of our ancestry—discrimination, persecution or unspeakable violence. The Holocaust. No Irish or Italians need apply. The conflation of Islam and radical Islamic terrorism. Let us tell each other our stories. Let us take our inspiration from those Union soldiers who never “lost Heart,” saw common cause, and locked arms. Let us continue writing our American story together.