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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of Mississippi’s Civil Rights Symposium


Jackson, MS
United States

Good afternoon, and thank you, U.S. Attorney [Gregory K.] Davis [of the Southern District of Mississippi], for your kind words, for organizing this energizing conference – and along with U.S. Attorney [Felicia C.] Adams [of the Northern District of Mississippi] – for your outstanding service to the people of Mississippi.  I also want to thank Constance Slaughter-Harvey for joining us today.  And I want to acknowledge my many colleagues here today from the Civil Rights Division.  Each day, they work tirelessly to advance opportunity, to ensure equality and to safeguard justice for all people in this country.

I want to start by commending U.S. Attorney Davis and all of his colleagues, including [Chief of the Civil Division] Mitzi Dease Paige, for expanding and institutionalizing this new Civil Rights Section.  Our offices work closely together on a wide range of civil and criminal enforcement matters and this new section will only enhance, strengthen and further advance our efforts. 

I arrived at the Civil Rights Division in October 2014, weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, set off nationwide protests and renewed a national conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.  And today, from policing, to criminal justice reform, to LGBTI rights, civil rights issues continue to dominate the national dialogue – and for good reason.  This symposium provides a robust opportunity to engage on so many of these issues.

Despite truly monumental progress in the field of civil rights – progress once viewed as unthinkable; unimaginable and even, at times, impossible – today we still see a real gap between what the law guarantees, on one hand, and what people experience, on the other.  And in too many communities across the country, the founding promise of America remains unfulfilled and unrealized.  Too many people live trapped by the weight of injustice.  Too many families find themselves stuck in cycles of poverty.  And too many communities face barriers of discrimination.  And so as all of us come together for this energizing civil rights symposium, I want to frame our discussion around these questions: how can we focus our efforts; how can we forge partnerships and how can we apply, utilize and enforce the law to fulfill the founding promise of America? 

Fulfilling the promise of America starts by protecting, supporting and empowering our youth.  Sadly, even 62 years after Brown v. Board of Education, far too many children continue to attend racially-segregated schools and live in racially-isolated neighborhoods.  In the Civil Rights Division, we strive tirelessly to address this inequality and to ensure that every student gets an equal opportunity – and a fair chance – to learn, to thrive and to excel in school.  For the past 50 years, the division has litigated and enforced school desegregation cases, aiming to ensure equal educational opportunities for all of our children.  Just last month, following a five-decade-long legal battle to desegregate schools in Cleveland, Mississippi, a federal court ordered the Cleveland School District to consolidate its secondary schools.  The court rejected as unconstitutional two alternatives proposed by the school district.  And the court sided with the Justice Department that the district must consolidate its high schools and middle schools in order to achieve desegregation.

Fulfilling the promise of America also means protecting the right to vote.  The right of all eligible voters to cast a ballot free from unlawful burdens and interference forms the bedrock of our democracy.  And the Justice Department works vigorously to protect, to safeguard and to enforce this right.  The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision dealt a powerful blow to a significant part of the Voting Rights Act.  It takes much more effort and much more time to protect eligible voters from discriminatory laws and elections don’t stop in the meantime.  The voters feel the impact.  And we feel it too.  And the Justice Department continues to believe that Congress should respond to the Shelby County decision by restoring the protections of the Voting Rights Act to their full and proper strength.  But in the meantime, we have pledged to use every tool that remains at our disposal to protect eligible voters wherever and whenever we can.  And from our cases in Texas and North Carolina, to other states across the country, we continue to aggressively protect voting rights.  That includes protecting the voting rights of our servicemembers, through our enforcement of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA).  Because our men and women in uniform should never find themselves unable to participate in the very democracy they risk their lives to defend.

In addition, fulfilling the promise of America means protecting the rights of the most vulnerable among us, including people with disabilities.  As you heard this morning, we continue to work with great U.S. Attorneys like yours here to vigorously enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Olmstead v. L.C.  Our disability rights work spans an array of areas, from child welfare systems, to medical care, to transportation services.  We work to ensure that people with disabilities get treated with the dignity they deserve and receive the protection our laws guarantee – including the right to live in their own homes and work in their own communities.  We continue to challenge unnecessary segregation in all the systems where it occurs, including in education and employment services, pursuing 50 Olmstead integration matters in 25 states since 2009.  Because of our Olmstead work, today 53,000 people with disabilities will have meaningful opportunities to receive services in integrated, community-based settings.

As you heard from my colleagues in our Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and here in the U.S. Attorney’s Office this morning, we also work to fulfill the promise of America by fighting for fair housing and fair lending.  Without a fair marketplace and a level playing field, communities, individuals and families cannot reach their full potential.  We know that housing impacts far more than shelter.  It can affect where you get a job, the kind of school your kids go to and how you get to work.  And we know that credit provides the means for families to own a home, to lease a car and to stockpile their savings.  The right to borrow money in a fair marketplace and the right to live where one chooses enable us to provide for our families, to live with autonomy and to build a brighter future for our children.  Since 2010, in partnership with our U.S. Attorney colleagues, our Housing and Civil Enforcement Section has obtained more than $1.4 billion in relief for individual victims and impacted communities.  We focus on all potentially discriminatory action by creditors and all forms of lending – from personal and car loans, to credit cards and mortgages.

We also believe that America cannot reach its full potential and promise until every person in this country – regardless of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity – can live free from discrimination, harassment and violence.  Even after the Supreme Court’s landmark gay marriage decision last year in Obergefell v. Hodges that guaranteed all people “equal dignity in the eyes of the law,” we see new efforts to deny LGBTI individuals the respect they deserve and the protection our laws guarantee.  And let me add this – efforts like House Bill 2 in North Carolina not only violate the laws that govern our nation, but also the values that define us as a people.

Beyond North Carolina, the Justice Department continues to combat sex-based discrimination – which includes discrimination against transgender men and women – in an array of areas, from employment to education.  In recent years, many school districts, colleges, universities and others have raised questions about transgender students and how to best ensure these students – and non-transgender students – can all enjoy a safe and discrimination-free environment.  Last month, along with the Department of Education, we released joint guidance to help provide educators the information they need to ensure that all students, including transgender students, can attend school in an environment free from sex-based discrimination.  And as we said when announcing the guidance, we look forward to working with school officials to make the promise of equal opportunity a reality for all of our children. 

Fulfilling the promise of America also requires ensuring a fair and smart criminal justice system.  Because for too many people today – and in particular young people, people of color and people living in poverty – a single incident, whether an arrest by the police or a fine by the court, can set off a downward spiral.  It can lead to a cycle of profound problems that destroy lives, ruin futures and tear apart families.  A fair and smart criminal justice system starts with addressing the mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.  As communities struggle with issues around policing – including the use of force, racial justice and officer and public safety – it presents a critical opportunity to engage in tough, robust and complex conversations to drive real reform.  In cities around the country, we continue to lead thorough, fact-driven investigations and develop consent decrees that hold the potential to make these cities national models for constitutional, effective and accountable community policing in the 21st century.

Last year, our investigation into the Ferguson Police Department made headlines for exposing policing and court practices designed to prioritize revenue collection over public safety.  We found Ferguson issuing multiple citations with excessive fines and fees for minor violations – fines like $302 for jaywalking, $427 for disturbing the peace and $531 for allowing high grass and weeds to grow on your lawn.  And we found the inability of poor people to pay these fines and fees leading to multiple arrests, jail time and payments that far exceeded the cost of the original ticket.

Earlier this year, we reached a landmark agreement with the city of Ferguson, which, among other measures, will help end the harmful practices that punish vulnerable residents merely for their inability to pay excessive fines and fees.  But as advocates, impacted individuals and court officials themselves have pointed out over the past year, the problem extends well beyond Ferguson.  We can see it in many state and municipal courts around the country.  To help address this challenge, the Justice Department recently issued a dear colleague letter to state and local judges to assist with reform of unlawful, unfair and counterproductive fine and fee practices.

We also know that we can’t achieve real and lasting criminal justice reform unless we address the problems that youth encounter in our juvenile justice system.  We must acknowledge the collateral consequences that too often result when children who merely misbehave or act out in class suddenly find themselves receiving a sentence of incarceration rather than a diploma from school.

My colleagues will discuss our settlements and ongoing litigation with state and local jurisdictions in Mississippi, which highlight the importance of this issue.  Across a host of due process violations, we found students suspended from school – and some later incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility – for behavior as mundane as dress code violations like wearing the wrong color socks or leaving their shirts untucked.  These actions disproportionately impacted children of color and children with disabilities.  In 2013, the division reached an agreement to address discriminatory school discipline practices – including referrals to law enforcement – by the Meridian, Mississippi, Public School District.  And last year, the court approved agreements with the Meridian Police Department and the state youth probation agency.  Together, our agreements in Mississippi seek to obtain a series of outcomes focused on appropriate response and resolution – rather than escalation – of school incidents.

In another stage of the juvenile justice system – we also continue to protect the civil rights of youth confined in juvenile correctional facilities.  In Greenwood, Mississippi, our investigation into the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center helped lead to a pivotal settlement agreement with significant reforms to protect confined youth from harm.  These reforms include a commitment to eventually eliminate disciplinary seclusion and restrict the use of cool-down seclusion.

Of course, discrimination takes many forms, and while this symposium focuses on civil cases, I do want to speak briefly about our criminal civil rights work.  The Justice Department continues to vigorously and aggressively prosecute hate violence.  The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act strengthened our capacity to combat hate-motivated violence, adding new federal protections against crimes based on one’s gender identity, sexual orientation, gender or disability.  Nearly two decades after two men died from the most barbaric and hateful of crimes – Matthew Shepard brutalized, then left to die on a fence, and James Byrd Jr. chained to a truck and then dragged to his death for miles – this landmark law reminds us of their legacies and the urgent work ahead.  It emphasizes that our legal system must protect all people – regardless of what they look like, where they worship, whom they love and whether they have a disability – from hate violence.

Last year, we completed a Mississippi case where 10 people conspired to harass and assault African Americans in the Jackson area, disparagingly calling it “Jafrica.”  One night, their terror culminated in a fatal assault of an African-American man, James Craig Anderson, who was intentionally run over by lead defendant Deryl Dedmon, driving a Ford F-250 truck, and accompanied by other co-conspirators.  Our legal team won convictions against each of the 10 defendants, with each of them receiving lengthy prison sentences.

In February, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves [of the Southern District of Mississippi] also ordered that four of the defendants pay $840,000 in restitution payments.  At a sentencing hearing last year, he issued a powerful rebuke to bigotry and hate violence, tracing the painful history of racial injustice that plagued this state and our nation for so long: “Today we take another step away from Mississippi’s tortured past … we move farther away from the abyss.”  And Judge Reeves continued to explain the significance of the sentencing: “As demonstrated by the work of the officers within these state and federal agencies – black and white, male and female, in this Mississippi they work together to advance the rule of law.”

To further improve our efforts to combat hate violence, along with our U.S. Attorney partners and the FBI, last year we organized a series of regional hate crimes trainings – in Mississippi, California, Oregon, Kansas and Florida.  These sessions helped to train local and federal law enforcement in how to recognize, investigate and prove hate crimes.  They helped to educate communities and engage them in the process of ensuring public safety.  And they helped to encourage better hate crime reporting and data collection.

Just 90 miles away from here, at a memorial in Neshoba County, Mississippi, stands a stone in memory of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – three civil rights workers murdered in 1964: a heinous crime prosecuted by the Civil Rights Division during its earliest years.  The words inscribed on the stone state that these men “gave their lives in the struggle to obtain human rights for all people.”

Today, more than half a century later – despite so much dramatic progress and so much inspiring change – that struggle continues.  And make no mistake.  We will continue that struggle.  We will forge on.  And we will strive tirelessly until the promise of America – and its laws – becomes a reality for all.  Looking around this room, I know we will continue to advance – and one day – to fulfill that promise.  And I look forward to our continued partnership in this most vital effort, noble mission and worthy cause.  Thank you very much.

Civil Rights
Hate Crimes
Updated August 19, 2016