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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Justice Department’s 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration


Washington, DC
United States

Good morning, and thank you, Richard [Toscano], for that kind introduction, for organizing this wonderful program and for your outstanding leadership of the Justice Management Division’s Equal Employment Opportunity Staff.  I also want to recognize one of our distinguished guests with us today, civil rights activist Dorie Ann Ladner.

Each year, we in the Justice Department family come together in this hall to honor the life and celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We gather not just to utter words, but to inspire action.  King believed immensely in the power of individual action and collective hope to create a brighter future.  Nearly 60 years ago, in May 1957 – in a nation plagued with racial divides and profound inequities – from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered the closing address before a crowd of 25,000.  Exactly three years earlier, the Supreme Court had issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  But the promise of Brown – and the promise of countless other rights embedded in our founding ideals and woven throughout our Constitution – felt, in some places, like a distant dream.  So women and men gathered on the National Mall to demand their rights of equality under the law.  King urged them to “keep faith in the future.  Let us not despair.  Let us realize that as we struggle for justice and freedom, we have cosmic companionship.”  Throughout his life, King brought people together: white and black, legislators and private citizens, young and old.  He taught us to see the commonality of our dreams, our hopes and our fears – the threads and truths that bind us together as human beings.  He moved our country to act, to pass laws, to support reforms and to change attitudes.

Four months after that May rally on the mall, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.  While it was an important step, the Civil Rights Act focused almost exclusively on voting rights.  And it fell far short of the full legal protections our country and our people needed.  But it did create a framework to ensure equality and advance justice in the years ahead.  That framework was the Civil Rights Division.  And over the next decade, inspired by King and countless others, Congress acted and America changed.  King’s legacy includes the landmark laws the Civil Rights Division enforces today: the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed just days after his assassination.

Of course, laws alone do not vindicate rights.  King knew that.  All of us here today know that, too.  That’s why the title for our program – “Remember!  Celebrate!  Act!  A Day On … Not a Day Off” – is so fitting.  That’s what King wanted all of us to do: not to live a life of perfection, without struggle and failure, and not to let the status quo control our careers.  But to find the courage and strength to lead, to inspire others, to take chances, to empower and lift our neighbors up.  Through that process, man-by-man, woman-by-woman, community-by-community, he believed in America’s unyielding capacity for progress.

As we participate in this program today, as we celebrate a holiday in his name on Monday, let us take the lessons of King’s life and apply them to our time.  Whether lawyers or administrators, paralegals or project managers, you are the people who make this department deliver results and vindicate rights.  And having worked with so many of you for over two years now, whatever challenges to civil rights we face in the years ahead, you give me hope that America can continue marching forward on its journey, day-by-day, to shape a more perfect union.

It is now my privilege to introduce my boss, an exemplary public servant, and a woman who has led this department with conviction and courage, helping our country advance justice and secure freedom for countless individuals and communities.  Please welcome the Attorney General of the United States, Loretta E. Lynch.

Civil Rights
Updated January 11, 2017