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U.S. Marshals Director Donald W. Washington Delivers Keynote Address at the Department of Justice Annual Commemorative Program Honoring the Life and Legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Washington, DC
United States
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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

U.S. Marshals Director Donald W. Washington Delivers Keynote Address at the 2020 Department of Justice Annual Commemorative Program Honoring the Life and Legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
U.S. Marshals Director Donald W. Washington Delivers Keynote Address


Thank you Attorney General Barr for your true, forthright, and strong leadership of the Department of Justice.

Thank you Assistant Attorney General Dreiband as you lead the Civil Rights Division and its quest to remedy injustice wherever it exists. Your division touches the lives of everyone in America.

Thank you Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Claire McCusker Murray, Richard Toscano and Lee Lofthus for your long history of relentlessly pursuing equal opportunity and a better world for all.

To the audience, thank you being captive to siren’s call for justice, and for your faithful service to the American people.

To my senior staff and the whole of the U.S. Marshals Service – thank you for being the trusted guardians and protectors of Article 3, the best fugitive hunters and people finders in the world, and for being ever faithful to our country in the performance of duty.

I am honored to take part in this celebration of the legacy of the reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

I ask you - can you hear his voice as I often do?

It is said that about half way through Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream speech in the summer heat of August 1963; the great Mahalia Jackson implored him to tell ‘em about the dream, Martin.” Whether King heard her is not clear.

During the 1963 March on Washington speech, he said, “I have a dream” that “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

He spoke of transforming “the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” “When this happens,” he said, “it will allow freedom to ring, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing – ‘free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!’”

Each year we set aside the third Monday in January to celebrate the life, legacy, and dreams of a man who brought much hope and healing to America.

I think Dr. King would be proud to see us here today. He lifted the mindfulness, the sentience, the awareness – of our nation.

Let me ask you this one question for today: Have you impacted other persons to reach their maximum potential, to make their maximum contribution, or to become their best selves?

Here today – in this great hall – I proudly lead and represent the United States Marshals Service and its brave men and women who work around the clock in every corner of America to protect this nation and its people.

And, as we are gathered here to celebrate the astonishing impact of Martin Luther King Jr., – I am very proud to be a part of the United States Department of Justice – an organization that made enduring contributions during this nation’s struggle to become – a more perfect union.

I believe that, over the decades of the civil rights movement, most, if not all, agencies and departments of government failed to meet the fundamental standard of fairness and equal opportunity for all.

But, indulge me if you will as I briefly brag about my agency.

In 1960, it was deputy U.S. Marshals who escorted six-year-old Ruby Bridges to class when she became the first African American student to integrate in an elementary school in the south.

It was deputy U.S. Marshals who stood guard over James Meredith as he walked onto the campus of Ole Miss as the university’s first African American student in 1962.

Marshals stayed with Meredith throughout his time at the school, protecting him 24 hours a day. After a violent confrontation between students and deputies, 160 deputies were injured – 28 by gunfire. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Assistant Attorney General John Michael Doar also personally helped escort James Meredith to class at the University of Mississippi. In 1963, guarded by a team of deputies, James Meredith received his degree in political science. 

And as desegregation was ordered in the sixties, judges, state governors and even President Kennedy turned to the Marshals service for help implementing law and court rulings.

The U.S. Marshals Service even protected Dr. King several times. In 1961, Marshals were on hand as a first line defense during the siege of the First Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Then, in August 1963, Marshals were called on to provide protection for Dr. King at the March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech.

The Department of Justice was deeply involved in all of these examples and much more.  

All of us here are wedded to an oath or pledge to take the harder right rather than the easier wrong. Still, we are not yet the equals of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King knew then, and we must know now that it takes extraordinary courage, commitment, and selfless service during adversity to stand up for what is right; to stand up against bigotry and hatred; to demand that all people are treated with dignity and respect; to fight to become a nation firmly and completely committed to the words inscribed above the entrance to the Supreme Court, “equal justice under law.”

Dr. King was a very remarkable figure, perhaps most of all because he was an ordinary man – a husband and a father – who made very extraordinary choices in the face of adversity. As a result, his legacy of respect, fairness and equality – for all – forever changed the very fabric of this nation.  His voice – his personality – his actions – forced our nation to reflect upon our most fundamental ideals and principles.

It has been more than 50 years since Dr. King’s death in 1968, but the nation whose consciousness he became, the fundamental rights he fought for, the hopes he expressed, and the dream he had – for all people – are just as important today as they were then.

We will always honor Dr. King. His deep conviction, inspired generations of people. His dream continues to project itself into the future.

His example and determination sowed the seeds that changed the minds and hearts of millions. His once-imagined dream flourished into the reality evidenced by our presence here today.

Dr. King dedicated his life – and he made the ultimate sacrifice – for to the principles we should all deeply believe and support – the simple principles of fairness, respect, and equal rights – and opportunity – for all. I believe each of us can be more “King-like.” We can all adopt an action-oriented commitment to eliminating unfairness and inequity, discrimination and oppression, large or small – in any form – in any place.

From Dr. King’s dream, our charge today is to serve others in a way that allows all of us to reach our maximum potential, to make our maximum contribution, or to become our best selves.

In recognition of Dr. King’s impact and monumental importance to this nation, President Reagan signed legislation in 1983 making Dr. King’s birthday a public holiday. Then, in 1994, President Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act, creating the first and only national holiday of community service and cooperation.

Wherever you find yourself this coming Friday through Monday, please take some time to reflect on the life and vision of doctor king.

But, this is not only a time for reflection, it is also a day for action.  A day to make a difference! A day to be “King-like.”

I challenge you to be among those who see this holiday not as a day off but as a day of service to volunteer and to touch lives by making a difference – whether large or small.

Dr. King was an advocate of service and he believed life’s most persistent and urgent question is “what are you doing for others?”

So, over the next few days and especially this coming Monday, take time to give back and to serve others. Whether helping the elderly or others in maintaining their home, cleaning up a park, donating time at a shelter or kitchen, visiting a nursing home or an elderly friend or relative, or just giving impactful words of encouragement to the young dreamers out there.

If you just can’t make that happen, then use this day to thank or support those who do. Write them a note saying thank you; drop of some doughnuts and coffee; share their stories on your social media.

As Dr. King once said, “You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.”

I would add that even if you are like Plato or Aristotle, even if you can make your subjects and verbs agree, then you have an even greater opportunity to increase fairness and equality for all.

Service to others isn’t about your education or your background – it’s about selflessness, caring for others and actively leaning forward – and looking forward – to a brighter future for all.

I encourage each of you to help make certain that this year’s observance is not simply a “day off.” It must be a “day on.” Together, we can ensure that it is a day to build on the dream for which Dr. King gave his life.

MLK knew that it wasn’t enough just to talk the talk. He had to walk the walk for his words to be credible.

How do we walk the walk?

We must be visible champions for justice, fairness, equity, inclusion and diversity in all aspects of life – professional and personal. We must be guided by content of character and not by the immutable characteristics of birth.

We must see these ideals as more than buzzwords – but as words of action. Our actions in these halls and in our offices around the nation demonstrate what we are. Our ideals must permeate everything we do. Our DNA contains a deeply rooted desire to protect and respect the rights to which all men and women are entitled.

If we are true to our ideals, then my agency, our other agencies and bureaus, our department, and our nation will be “King-like.”

So, just as the organizations represented here stand united and firm against crime and injustice, we must also stand united against inequity, intolerance, discrimination, and oppression.

In the spirit of Dr. King, surely we all know that we are more than the color of our skin. We are more than the gender to which we identify. We are more than the religions we follow. And we are more than the places from which we come.

Instead, we are all members of a living department that fights for the protection of the liberties and the rights of every person. We enforce laws, uphold justice and keep the nation’s citizens safe.

I believe we will continue to follow the lead of Dr. King and march onward and forward in the right direction.

In the words of Dr. King, let us remember that “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

So, today, as we celebrate the profound gift of Dr. King’s dream, let’s stand collectively as a people dedicated to Dr. King’s legacy. We stand shoulder to shoulder – as one people of many people – to recognize and honor a great man whose dream was to secure America’s greatest promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

There is still much for you and I to do for all of us to live King’s dream! Let’s remain true to our most fundamental ideals and principles of service to others.

And as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “everyone can be great because everyone can serve … you only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Thank you all very much.

Updated January 16, 2020