Remarks as prepared for delivery (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): Good morning. I’d like to thank President Cornell Brooks for inviting me and for the NAACP’s work in fighting for equal rights. It’s an honor to address you from the same stage as so many of our nation’s leaders in business, government and a myriad of other fields. This is truly a special community.
Since the ratification of our Constitution, the people of the United States have fought to realize the promise of equal opportunity and equal justice enshrined in its text. We the people have walked a long, often painful road to hold this country we love to its highest ideals. Through slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Through the long night of Jim Crow and mass lynchings, into the daybreak of the Civil Rights Movement, and through the unforeseeable challenges of today and tomorrow.
The NAACP has been central to that struggle. In its over 100-year history, the NAACP has fought for the simple and undeniable truth that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of color or creed. That all Americans deserve a chance to soar.
And I think most of you will agree: Although we yet have much work to do, as a nation we have made tremendous progress.
Not only that, we are living – right now – through a promising moment in our history. It is a moment when the ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all are at the center of our public debate. Some of the debate has been propelled by tragedy, some by incredible community mobilization. Policing and criminal justice reform, the scourge of hate crimes, equal rights for our LGBT brothers and sisters, the battle to keep the voting booth open to all – these issues are part of a national conversation taking place in our newspapers, in our classrooms and at the dinner table. The country is reflecting on our founding commitments and defining what kind of a society we’re going to have.
That’s why I see this as a moment of unprecedented opportunity.
I feel incredibly lucky to be at the Civil Rights Division during this momentous time. We are committed to advancing three basic principles. First, we work to protect the most vulnerable among us by ensuring that all in America can live free from exploitation, discrimination, and violence. Second, we seek to safeguard the infrastructure of democracy by protecting the right to vote and access to justice, pushing for effective and accountable policing, and protecting the civil rights of service-members. Finally, we work to expand opportunity for all people to learn, earn a living, live where they want, love whom they choose, and worship freely.
The Civil Rights Division is more engaged than ever, on all fronts.
We have fought to enforce the Voting Rights Act, winning a major victory against Texas’s voter ID law last fall. A federal judge held that the law, which required new forms of ID that more than 600,000 registered voters lacked, was purposefully discriminatory. And as I stand here today, division lawyers are in trial in North Carolina challenging voting restrictions that would disproportionately exclude minority voters.
We have fought for fairness in housing, enforcing the Fair Housing Act. We all know that there is an inextricable link between where you live and the opportunities you are afforded. Just weeks ago, the Supreme Court affirmed our position that policies segregating minorities in low income neighborhoods, even unintentionally, are unlawful. And we have fought to ensure that people have equal access to credit, winning over $1 billion for victims cut off from capital by banks, or else targeted for predatory products. Just yesterday, we announced a landmark settlement with Honda over allegations of race and national origin discrimination in auto lending.
And we are vigorously pursuing those who would divide us by perpetrating violent hate crimes. As we speak, my office is working with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate the tragic and senseless murder of nine beloved community members at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. We are committed to seeing justice done there.
Perhaps more than in any other area, the division is at the forefront of reforming our nation’s criminal justice system. While we work to ensure that all children can attend school free from discrimination, we are also striving to end the school to prison pipeline and keep kids in school. I have been working on this issue for my whole adult life, from my days as young lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, seeking justice for dozens of wrongfully convicted African American and Hispanic residents in Tulia, Texas. Fifteen years ago, too few were paying attention to the problem of mass incarceration in our country. Today, I have the honor to continue this work under the committed leadership of President Obama and Attorney General Lynch, at a time when criminal justice reform has real, bipartisan support.
From Ferguson to New York to Baltimore, people have taken to the streets to protest what they view as a lack of police accountability, especially with respect to the deaths of black men. Police officers, meanwhile, feel unfairly attacked, undervalued, and scapegoated for larger societal ills. The past year’s events have highlighted the urgent need to address distrust, and bridge longstanding divisions, between America’s law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.
Over the last six years, the Civil Rights Division has opened 22 investigations into police departments in every corner of the nation – including in Ferguson, where we exposed a department driven by revenue generation and infected by racial bias – and has reached 18 agreements to correct unconstitutional policing. These efforts reflect the input of city officials, police officers and unions, and the community. Our agreements – including a powerful new consent decree in Cleveland – provide blueprints for reform around the country.
And so I’m optimistic. The country is hungry for the transformative change that the division is working toward, and that organizations like the NAACP have championed. But I’m also aware that this moment may pass. The media’s and the public’s attention could shift tomorrow. That’s why it’s incumbent on all of us to act, and to act now.
I commit to doing all that I can at the Justice Department. But it will take sustained and bold leadership from all of you in this room, and millions like you across the country. Yes, the road ahead is yet long and will be hard, but I like our chances. Because if you are here today, then you share the same beliefs that motivated me to become a civil rights lawyer at the NAACP LDF years ago:
The belief that every individual has the power to make a profound difference in the lives of others. The power to make change – and to bring hope – to people who desperately need it. The power to advance the pursuit of justice that has always bound this nation together. The power to bend the arc of history itself.
Together, we can accomplish dramatic and innovative change. Momentum is on our side. May we rise to the challenge and overcome the divisions of our time. Let us signal to the world that in America today the pursuit of a more perfect union lives on.