Thank you, Tony [West], for that kind introduction – and thank you all for being here today. It’s a pleasure to stand with so many good friends, valued colleagues, and passionate public servants as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And it’s a special privilege to join the men and women, past and present, of the Community Relations Service in reflecting on half a century of exemplary work as “America’s Peacemakers” – and rededicating ourselves to the challenges ahead.
I’d particularly like to recognize Director [Grande] Lum for his exceptional leadership of this critical component, and for his lifetime of service in mediation and conflict resolution. And I want to thank each of the distinguished panelists and guest speakers we’ll be hearing from this afternoon – including Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Ambassador [Andrew] Young, for lending your voices to today’s discussion. It is a privilege to share the stage with you.
Of course, I am also mindful today of the leader and civil rights champion who was taken from us late last week. John Seigenthaler was a passionate, lifelong journalist; a fierce advocate for civil rights and equal justice; and a courageous leader who put his life on the line assisting Freedom Riders in Alabama as a top aide to my predecessor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Later, as a newspaper editor, he helped call attention to the growing civil rights movement at a time when many Southern journalists preferred to turn a blind eye. And he never slowed down or let up, fighting to defend the First Amendment, shining a light on those in need, and working to hold those in power to rigorous account every day of his long and storied career. I will always count myself as fortunate to have known John Seigenthaler, and want to express my condolences to his family today – as we recommit ourselves, here in the Great Hall, to the work that defined his life and the cause that’s now ours to carry forward.
Fifty years ago this month, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he declared it not an absolute victory – or a panacea for all racial injustice – but a challenge to the nation: “a challenge to work in our communities and our states, in our homes and in our hearts,” to bring justice and hope to people across the country.
In addition to outlawing many forms of discrimination – and instituting vital voting and employment protections – the Civil Rights Act created a new Community Relations Service to address tensions, to assist vulnerable populations, and to help heal communities torn apart by hatred and discrimination. And in the decades since then – through passion, through engagement, and through steadfast leadership at the national level – the dedicated public servants of CRS have consistently risen to that considerable challenge.
From this Service’s earliest days – in your extensive efforts with Dr. King and other leaders of the Civil Rights Era; in your mediation during incidents like the takeover at Wounded Knee; and in your continuing work to address school segregation and religious intolerance wherever they are found – CRS has repeatedly proven its ability to enable diverse groups to come together constructively, to foster inclusive dialogue, and to bridge longstanding divisions.
Fifty years and countless conflicts since its inception, the men and women of the Community Relations Service are still working to address some of the most intractable issues and urgent threats we face. And particularly since 2009, CRS has taken important steps to expand the reach and enlarge the impact of its work – enhancing your ability to build upon the history of progress that this organization has done so much to shape.
Five years ago, when President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, he called on CRS to broaden its mission by preventing and responding to hate crimes that target individuals based not only on race, color or national origin – but also gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and disability. Since then, you have answered this call with swift and determined action, deploying CRS conciliators to thousands of hate-based conflicts in communities across America.
When unspeakable tragedy struck a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin – in 2012 – CRS mediators rushed to the scene, providing timely assistance to state and local authorities and offering training and insight to community leaders. In that case as in so many others that have arisen over the last few years, you stood among this Department’s first responders to a crisis as it unfolded – helping to find common ground in some of the most volatile and emotionally-charged situations imaginable.
Today, with 15 offices around the country, CRS is better equipped than ever to intervene in moments of difficulty and help communities move forward from tragedy and division. Under Director Lum’s leadership, CRS is taking part in an unprecedented number of mediations. Earlier this year, you launched a groundbreaking transgender law enforcement cultural professionalism training. And I know a similar training initiative, focused on the needs of individuals with cognitive disabilities, is being developed as we speak.
By encouraging respectful dialogue about sensitive issues, opening lines of communication, and tearing down barriers to healing and reconciliation – all in the strictest confidence and without any expectation of recognition or public thanks – today’s CRS is acting in accordance with the finest traditions established by your predecessors. By improving mediator training and partnering with an ever-expanding group of stakeholders, you are also taking new and innovative steps to enhance this agency’s capacity to serve as an impartial observer, a steadfast ally, and a consistent advocate for victims of intolerance and bias-motivated violence. And as a result, the impact of your work is felt not just across this Department but around the country, in every conflict you help resolve and every community you help strengthen.
Of course, there’s no denying that a great deal remains to be done. And the very nature of your mission means that it will never be complete.
We come together this afternoon at an important juncture – in a moment defined by challenge as well as great opportunity – with remarkable achievements stretching behind us and critical work unfolding ahead. And as we reflect on the first 50 years of this Service’s extraordinary history, I believe we must also look toward the next 50. We must reaffirm our determination to meet intolerance with understanding, to confront ignorance with informed dialogue, and to promote opportunity, access, and inclusion – in every community and circumstance.
We must recommit ourselves to the legacies of visionary leaders and courageous citizens who made the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the creation of this agency, possible. And we must resolve to keep moving forward together – as one nation and one people – driven by the needs that remain unfulfilled, determined to transcend the barriers that still divide us, and dedicated to the enduring promise of equal justice under law.
Fifty years ago this month, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and officially launched the Community Relations Service, he did so out of a lifelong belief that conciliation is always stronger than confrontation. Half a century later, CRS is continuing to put that belief into action. You are moving forward to fulfill the “high responsibility” he outlined. And you are, and will always remain, America’s Peacemaker – devoted to building the more just and inclusive society that all of our citizens deserve.
I thank you all, once again, for your commitment to these efforts, your passionate engagement with those at risk and in need, and your exceptional courage and leadership in the face of unspeakable challenge. I am proud to count every one of you as a colleague and a partner in advancing the work that must always be our common cause. And I look forward to everything we will do and achieve together in the months and years to come.