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Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein Delivers Remarks at a Conference on Law Enforcement and Civil Rights at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute


Birmingham, AL
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you, Reverend Price. I am grateful for the opportunity to join you at this important conference.

Spending time with you here at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham inspires me. It reminds that we are indebted for our liberty to the martyrs of the past. And we have a duty to pay it forward, so that every American can live in peace and freedom.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute plays an invaluable role in safeguarding liberty for all Americans. When I toured the museum today, I was impressed by how well the exhibits document the history of the civil rights movement.

But this museum is not just about the past. It provides lessons and inspiration for the present and the future.

I am honored to be here representing the United States Department of Justice. Our most fundamental mission is to protect people by enforcing the rule of law. The theme of this conference goes to the heart of our mission.

The 16th Street Baptist Church is a sacred place of pilgrimage and remembrance. On September 15th of 1963, a bomb exploded while children attended Sunday School.

Four innocent American girls were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Many more children were injured.

That church bombing occurred 54 years and two days ago. It was a notorious and cold-blooded hate crime. It was not just a crime against the people who died. It was a crime against America.

Shortly after the bombing, two teenage American boys were shot to death in the streets of Birmingham. Their names were Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware. Virgil was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle when he was killed.

Those innocent American children were murdered because of the color of their skin. The killers believed themselves to be true Americans. But they were wrong.

The victims and their families are the people who represent the American values that we cherish.

The killers did not share our most fundamental value: all people are created equal under the law. That was the promise of the Declaration of Independence.

Today is Constitution Day, the 230th anniversary of our Constitution. The version adopted in 1787 did not treat all people as equal under the law. It did not even treat all men as equal.

The Constitution accepted slavery, which was legal in the majority of the original 13 states. And it did not give women the right to vote.

The Constitution we celebrate today has been amended to fix those flaws. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865. The Nineteenth Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote in 1920.

But the history remains. The way our nation treated African-Americans is America’s most tragic sin.

When I visited the National Museum of African-American History in Washington, DC, the tour guide made an insightful comment. He said that the museum depicts African-American history as a lens into what it means to be an American, period.

The African-American struggle for freedom, for civil rights, and for equality, is part of our American story.

When we visit these museums, the question we need to ask is not, “Why were those people killed?” We should ask, “Why were our people killed?”

It is instructive to set aside your own identity, whatever it may be, and imagine yourself and your family in the place of the victims. Imagine yourself and your children in bondage in America in 1863, with no safe place to hide. Imagine yourself and your family as second-class citizens in 1963, required by law to stand at the back of the bus, drink from a different water fountain, wait in a separate room, and attend an inferior school.

The targets of that discrimination made a simple and reasonable demand: honor the law. Recognize the equality of all Americans.

During the civil rights movement, African-American churches were pillars of strength, activism, inspiration and leadership. The attack on the 16th Street Baptist church was one of many bombings in Birmingham in 1963. Each incident was not just an attack on one house of worship. Each was an attack on the entire civil rights movement.

After the church bombing, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Birmingham to deliver a eulogy for the murdered girls. They were among dozens of Americans martyred during the civil rights movement. Thousands more were terrorized, beaten, struck by rocks, set upon by dogs, or pummeled by water cannons – only because they wanted the Government to follow the law and respect their Constitutional rights.

Hate crime laws did not exist then. But members of this congregation did not need words on paper to tell them that they experienced racism and hate.

The long and sordid history of hate crimes in America goes back for centuries, even before the founding of the United States. By the time of the Civil War, slavery had been entrenched on American soil for 250 years.

Emancipation and the end of Civil War did not end the hatred and violence. A bleak century of Jim Crow, political oppression, discrimination, segregation, and violence followed. Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,000 Americans were lynched. The vast majority were African-American. The symbols of the noose and the burning cross terrorized several generations.

In 1921, during the Tulsa race riot, a mob burned more than 1,200 African-American homes and 200 businesses. Three hundred people died. Arson, assault, and murder went unprosecuted.

The violence continued in the 1950s and 1960s. The murder of an innocent boy named Emmett Till, galvanized the civil rights movement nationwide. The murder of Medgar Evers showed how dangerous it was to speak up for civil rights.

Mobs attacked Freedom Riders. Buses were set ablaze. Churches were burned.

Dr. King himself was the victim of numerous hate crimes. He found a burning cross on his lawn. His house was shot at, and bombed. He was pelted with stones. He was hit with a brick. He was threatened with death, many times. On April 3rd of 1968, during Dr. King’s final trip to Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike, someone threatened to blow his plane out of the sky.

Dr. King never relented. He confronted violence with peace. He challenged anger with understanding.

Next April 4th will mark the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King. If Dr. King were alive today, he would surely be disappointed by how much racism still exists. But I hope that Dr. King would be proud about the progress he spurred America to make.

American children of all races remember his sacrifice, visit his monument, honor his holiday, and celebrate his legacy.

The King monument is close to the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King spoke of his dream for America. The National African-American History Museum also is nearby.

At the National Museum, I saw relics that bear witness to the tragedy here in Birmingham. Preserved and protected in a display case, there are shards of stained glass from one of the church windows.

When I visited the church today, I stood near the spot where dynamite blew a hole in the wall. And I saw a clock, its hands frozen in time at the moment of the explosion.

That clock is both a symbol and an inspiration. The bombers hoped to freeze the progress of the civil rights movement. They may have stopped the hands of that clock. But they failed to stop progress, because the spirit of liberty burns bright in America.

Federal law enforcement agencies were not always the good guys in that era, but there are events about which we can be proud. They include the iconic photographs of United States Marshals escorting children to school through hostile crowds. The Marshals themselves were sometimes the targets of mob violence.

The fateful year of 1963 was one hundred years after the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. On Memorial Day, Vice President Lyndon Johnson delivered a major speech about civil rights.

Johnson disagreed with critics of the Civil Rights Movement, who were calling for patience. He said, “One hundred years ago the slave was freed. One hundred years later, [his descendant] remains in bondage to the color of his skin.” Johnson understood that too much time had passed already.

He said, “Justice is a vigil …, a vigil we must keep in our own streets and schools and among the lives of all our people.”

Today, we are united in a common goal: ensuring equal justice under the rule of law.

The first and most important job of government is to secure citizens’ rights. The preamble of our Constitution affirms that government exists “to establish justice” and “to insure domestic tranquility.”

Our Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Sessions, makes it a priority to investigate and prosecute federal hate crimes, particularly in places where local authorities fail to carry out their responsibility to protect civil rights. Our key agencies include the Civil Rights Division, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorneys.

There is a quotation from Plato engraved on an outside corner of the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington. It reads, “Justice in the life and conduct of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.”

Dr. King valued the rule of law. He wrote that “[o]ne has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.” And he engaged only in peaceful civil disobedience.

Dr. King spoke about the redemptive power of love, and the futility of hate. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King defended the strategy of nonviolent resistance. He once said that violence “is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it…. [V]iolence merely increases hate…. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Unfortunately, half a century later, Americans are still the target of violence and hate crimes.

In Charlottesville last month, we saw and heard people openly advocate racism and bigotry, and commit terrible acts of violence. Our Department of Justice responded immediately. The United States Attorney’s Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the FBI are working closely with our state and local law enforcement partners.

The First Amendment often protects hateful speech that is abhorrent to American values. But there can be no protection for violence.

Two years ago, a racist criminal carried out a diabolical attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer murdered nine innocent and unarmed members of a Bible study group. He espoused his desire to spark a race war. He was convicted on federal hate crime charges, and sentenced to death.

Americans condemned the violence, and we watched in awe as the victims’ families responded with grace.

Once again, the victims demonstrated true American values.

It is important for us to recognize that a violent attack on any American based on race, is an attack on American values.

Hate crime statutes are a tool to enforce that principle.

What exactly is a hate crime? It is generally defined as a violent crime or threat, motivated by hate based on race, color or national origin, among other prohibited factors.

Five months ago, Attorney General Sessions announced that the Department’s new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety would include a hate crimes subcommittee. The Attorney General emphasized that “we must … protect the civil rights of all Americans, and we will not tolerate threats or acts of violence targeting any person … in this country on the basis of their … background.”

The subcommittee made recommendations to better train federal, state, local and tribal investigators and prosecutors; to better collect data; to increase cooperation between federal and local law enforcement; and to expand outreach to affected communities.

Hate crimes have a devastating effect beyond the harm inflicted on any one person. They reverberate through families, communities, and the entire nation, as others fear that they too could be threatened, by someone acting with the same un-American motive.

On June 29, the Department of Justice hosted a Hate Crimes Summit about “Identifying, Prosecuting and Preventing Hate Crimes.” In his opening remarks, Attorney General Sessions affirmed that “[t]he Trump Administration and the Department of Justice are committed to reducing violent crime and making America safe for all our citizens…. No American should have to fear being violently attacked because of who they are, what they believe, or how they worship.”

Our Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney’s Offices use national, regional, and local conferences, as well as forums and town halls, to ensure that people are aware of the risks they face, the laws that protect them, and the ways to report hate crimes. In May, for example, our Department held events around the country that focused on protecting houses of worship.

We also work with the Department of Homeland Security, which has experts who conduct security assessments for places of worship.

The FBI has created a National Training Initiative to conduct seminars, workshops, and training sessions for local law enforcement agencies, minority and religious organizations, and community groups. Those events promote cooperation, combat civil rights violations and provide education about civil rights laws.

Each year, the FBI also provides hate crimes training for thousands of agents and police officers.

Most FBI field offices participate in Hate Crimes Working Groups that work with local authorities to address hate crime problems faced minority communities. The FBI has also created a course called “Protecting Houses of Worship” to help achieve better security.

The Department of Justice does a lot more than investigate and prosecute crimes. Our Civil Rights Division plays a leading role in enforcing federal statutes that prohibit discrimination in employment, education, housing, credit, voting, public accommodations, as well as hate crimes.

In addition, the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service supports “Hate Crimes Prevention” and “Know Your Rights” forums. Just last week, the Department celebrated the life and legacy of Roger Wilkins, the first leader of the Community Relations Service. Wilkins sought to maintain peace and promote understanding.

We try to be proactive to prevent crimes from happening in the first place.

When crimes do occur, we will prosecute them.

I want to describe a few recent cases that demonstrate how the Department of Justice combats hate crimes.

On August 29, 2017, two Florida men pled guilty to civil rights violations for assault and cross-burning. In an effort to intimidate an interracial couple living next door, they built a wooden cross and poured gasoline on it. Then they carried that cross to the neighbors’ front yard. They propped it against the mailbox and set it on fire. Those perpetrators were sentenced to spend years in federal prison.

On August 21, two Texas defendants admitted that they were guilty of assaulting men because of their sexual orientation. The perpetrators persuaded one man to invite them to his home. Then they attacked him, stole his car and other property, and made derogatory comments about his sexual orientation. They will pay a heavy price.

On August 16, a Florida man pled guilty to a federal hate crime for attempting to bomb a Jewish community center with firearms and explosives.

On June 22, a federal grand jury indicted a man in Texas for burning an Islamic Center. He too is charged with a hate crime.

On June 15, our Justice Department indicted a Florida man for making a telephone threat to shoot people at an Islamic Center.

On June 9, a federal grand jury indicted a man for a hate crime for shooting three men of Indian descent in a Kansas bar.

On May 15, a Mississippi man was sentenced to serve 49 years in prison for the murder of a transgender woman. It was the first case charged under the Shepherd/Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act that involved a person attacked because of gender identity.

Those are a few examples of hate crimes that the Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes. In other cases, we support state and local law enforcement efforts.

Unfortunately, many hate crimes are not reported to law enforcement. We cannot prosecute crimes if we do not know about them.

You can help us by encouraging people to report suspected hate crimes. No one should suffer in silence, and no criminal should get away with a hate crime.

The first and most important job of the government is securing the rights and safety of citizens. Our other rights depend on public safety. We cannot enjoy liberty and pursue happiness unless we are safe on our streets. We cannot exercise our right to free speech, our right to assembly or our right to worship, if we are afraid to leave the house.

During the Civil Rights era, local law enforcement authorities often failed to hold killers accountable. Sometimes local authorities were complicit in the crimes.

Today, some communities suffer from a different type of inaction. Violent crime rates are rising, but concerns about public confidence make police agencies reluctant to engage in proactive enforcement that can save lives.

We need police officers to prevent crime. And we need them to be role models. Contacts with the police create indelible memories in the minds of citizens. Police have a special responsibility to follow ethical and professional standards.

As in any profession, some police officers commit crimes. Before I started my current job, one of the last cases I prosecuted was against seven Baltimore police officers for abusing their power. Cases like that are extremely important. But most police officers are not corrupt.

Every day, all across America, honest police officers of every race and ethnicity put on the uniform and the badge. They say goodbye to their families and take the risk that they might never come home. When there is danger, they run toward it, so others can get away safely.

Most police officers are honorable people who try to do the right thing.

Those good police officers deserve our support.

Before I conclude, I want to join Attorney General Sessions in this pledge: No American should have to fear being violently attacked because of who they are, what they believe, or how they worship.

Most Americans have the same goals. You want less crime. You want your rights protected. You want the laws applied fairly.

Our Department of Justice works for you. We will reduce crime. We will protect civil rights. And we will defend the rule of law.

I came here from Washington this morning to make that commitment. I will go back to Washington tonight and work with my colleagues to deliver on that commitment.

And I will remember what I learned in Birmingham today.

Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated September 18, 2017