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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Civil Rights Division’s Annual Awards Ceremony


Washington, DC
United States

Good afternoon, everyone.  I want to start by thanking Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General [Bill] Baer and Deputy Attorney General [Sally Q.] Yates for joining us today and for their wise counsel and outstanding support of the Civil Rights Division.  I also want to thank Attorney General [Loretta E.] Lynch – who I know wanted to be here today and sends her regards – for her unwavering support of the division’s work.  And I want to thank all of you – the men and women who carry out the division’s work, day-in and day-out, with the utmost integrity.  For nearly six decades – during Democratic and Republican administrations, with resilience and resolve, in times of tumult and triumph, against threats of billy clubs and bullets – the Civil Rights Division has advanced America’s highest ideals of freedom, justice and equality for all.   

In 1957 – in an era with open wounds of racism and hate, against fierce opposition and after a more than 24-hour filibuster by Senator Strom Thurmond – Congress passed the first piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.  Focused almost exclusively on voting rights, the legislation didn’t provide the tools to address widespread discrimination in employment, housing, education and other important areas.  But it did create a framework to enforce the protections that Congress would pass, that courts would defend and that America would support in the years to come.  That framework was the Civil Rights Division.  And over time those protections went into law – protections centered around the most fundamental of human aspirations: the notion that all people deserve to be treated fairly, with dignity and with decency.  They were protections designed to advance the cause of justice. 

The cause of justice is never static.  It is always searching for the next barrier to dismantle, for the next right to vindicate and for the next freedom to secure.  That’s what President [Lyndon B.] Johnson meant when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and said, “those who founded our country knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”  That’s what President [George H.W.] Bush meant when he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and declared: “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”  And that’s what Justice [Anthony] Kennedy meant when he wrote last year in Obergefell v. Hodges that our Constitution guarantees all people “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”

For the past eight years, this Civil Rights Division has answered that same call to make the promise of justice real for every person in every community.  During a time when civil rights are at the forefront of our national public discourse, you have made extraordinary contributions.  From policing and criminal justice reform, to LGBT rights and voting, you have fought discriminatory barriers and opened doors of opportunity for some of the most vulnerable among us: people with disabilities, people of color, people living in poverty and people who speak English as a second language.  Your work has transformed the nation, fulfilled dreams and changed lives.  And in doing this work, from Appellate to Policy, you’ve showed an amazing capacity to work across section boundaries.

You helped Hugo Ramirez – who lost his job, and then his savings and his car, because of an error with E-Verify – resolve the issue and find a new job as director of business development for a California health care provider.  In his words, you “gave me my livelihood back.”

After Police Officer Lyndi Trischler suffered complications from a high-risk pregnancy and the city of Florence, Kentucky, denied her request for light duty, you brought a case, reached a critical settlement, won her thousands of dollars in relief and changed the policies and training for protecting future female employees of the city. 

In a case that captured the attention of people all over the world, you brought a groundbreaking lawsuit against the state of North Carolina over H.B. 2 to vindicate the rights and defend the dignity of transgender individuals. 

Your Olmstead enforcement helped Gabrielle – who dreamed of buying a home – find work as a grooming assistant at a dog day care and boutique, earning more than $9 per hour.  As she said, “I feel better about my life and … I ended up buying that house.”  

A consent decree you reached with Wells Fargo created a program called CityLIFT that changed Monica’s life.  After she couldn’t buy a home for her family and lost her deposit, she felt like she “had lost everything.”  But once she learned about CityLIFT, which provides down payment assistance grants, she used the program to fulfill her dream and buy a home.  As Monica explained, “I needed for my children to know they can do anything, and for my mother to know she’s done well.”

You changed norms in our justice system by advancing language access in state courts around the country.  Because of your work, a low-income LEP woman in Michigan no longer needs to struggle through her child custody hearing or use her son as the court interpreter.  
You won two landmark voting rights cases in Texas and North Carolina.  In Texas, Sammie Louise Bates was one of roughly half a million Texans who lacked the form of ID needed to vote.  Bates – an elderly African-American woman living on a fixed income of $321 per month – lacked the $42 for a birth certificate she needed for a Texas ID.  As she testified, “I had to put the $42 where it was doing the most good … because we couldn’t eat the birth certificate … and we couldn’t pay rent with the birth certificate.”  Now, thanks to you, Bates can vote without paying money she doesn’t have for a card she can’t afford.  
You supported and implemented an election monitoring program that mobilized the division and department to make sure we didn’t miss a beat – and based on your effort, we sent more than 500 personnel to 67 jurisdictions in 28 states during last month’s general election. 

You reached a settlement agreement so that thousands of kindergarteners in Arizona will have the chance to learn English and reach their full potential.

You negotiated a consent decree with Ferguson and released our findings letter on Baltimore – two cases that shaped a national dialogue around the devastating connections among race, poverty and injustice in policing.

Your work brought transformative change to Ohio’s juvenile corrections system.  One young person explained the system’s “drastic change” that helped transform her from one of the worst-behaved kids to one of the best.  She went on to describe the powerful lesson of self-confidence: “When I get home I know I’m going to be able to use my new thought process because it feels so much better than doing what I used to do, being in trouble.”  

From filings on bail reform and the criminalization of homelessness to a letter to state and local judges about the unlawful imposition of fines and fees, you have sought to ensure that no one is punished for their poverty.

You stood up for a black gay man in Corpus Christi, Texas, who was viciously beaten because of his race and sexual orientation.  You prosecuted hate crimes targeting Muslim Americans and other vulnerable groups.  You convicted a defendant for recruiting foreign students from Kazakhstan by falsely promising clerical jobs at a made-up yoga studio and then forcing them into prostitution.  And you vindicated the rights of inmates and civilians abused and assaulted by officers who flouted the law. 
You did extensive outreach to combat religious discrimination.  And you helped advance diversity in law enforcement by identifying common barriers and promising practices to employment in the profession.

For just a few minutes, I want to talk about what your work has meant to me, and I want to emphasize that for the next several weeks, we still have work to do together.  During the past two plus years, you have given me the experience of a lifetime – the privilege to advance the cause of justice, to lift up the amazing work of the outstanding career men and women in the division.  It has been the most incredible two years of my life.  I cannot thank you enough – for your leadership, for your friendship and for your service to our country.  You have transformed the landscape of civil rights work in America irrevocably.  And you have done it all with grace and resolve, with compassion and empathy, with unyielding drive and relentless focus.  

You have also given me hope.  This work is never easy.  And I know that we – as a nation and as a people – have far more work to do.  Congress didn’t create the Civil Rights Division in 1957 to solve the easy problems.  Congress created this division to tackle the toughest issues, to serve as an independent and forceful agency of justice and hope.  You cannot be an agent of change without a deep reservoir of hope.  It’s the hope that men and women today can build a more just, more inclusive and more free future for the children of tomorrow.  It’s the hope that thanks to all of you in the Civil Rights Division, people will reap the benefits of this work for generations to come – in safer streets, in desegregated schools, in fair markets and in stronger communities.  It’s the hope that despite the zigs and the zags of our nation’s history, you will continue to ensure that America marches forward, imperfectly yet inexorably.  Hope fuels the struggle and the struggle fills us with hope.

While we will always face new and emerging challenges to equality, civil rights work is designed to endure and build momentum.  It is ironic but true that we learn the depth of our resiliency when tackling the greatest challenges.  The nation needs the Civil Rights Division and all of you to continue to make equal justice and equal opportunity a reality for all who live in the country.  Thank you for driving progress in our country.  It has been such an incredible privilege to lead this division that I love so very much working alongside such a distinguished and exemplary team of colleagues. 

Civil Rights
Updated December 7, 2016