During Black History Month, we honor the experience and the achievements of African Americans throughout our history. But this month is not only a celebration for African Americans. It is a celebration of America, for black history is American history – a key thread in the fabric of our country.
In the Declaration of Independence, our Founders declared something truly revolutionary. They set forth as self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The history of America is the story of this nation’s efforts, as flawed men and women, to fully live out these founding ideals and make them a reality for all our people. I was born in Selma and grew up in southern Alabama. In my lifetime, I have seen raw discrimination first hand. Schools were not only separate but clearly unequal. Job opportunities in private and governmental offices went to white over blacks. There was open wage discrimination. Police and Sheriff’s offices were often all or virtually all white. Black citizens were systematically denied the right to vote. Too often our good and decent Black citizens were not just placed in a second class citizenship but were denied the very basic rights of citizenship. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were the pivot points. This is when the tide turned. Martin Luther King led the movement. Relentless, Courageous, Moral, Faithful. And Victorious. Much progress has occurred over those intervening 50 plus years. A huge part of that progress was a direct result of the dedicated and principled work of the Department of Justice. This Department was at the forefront of the revolution that occurred. The movement was advanced in states, cities, schools, and in rural areas. Equal justice must prevail in every corner of this nation. There remains, of course, much to be done. We must also know that real reconciliation goes beyond law. It lies in the heart and the soul – as Lincoln and Dr. King so well knew.
So, let’s do our jobs. Let’s fulfill our duty. And, as we do so, let us perform in a way that builds harmony, unity and justice.
At the Department of Justice, we work to safeguard justice for all citizens, and to protect civil rights. This is our mission. And we are especially proud today of our thousands of gifted African-American employees who help carry out that mission every day – as U.S. attorneys, Department attorneys, line attorneys, special agents, professional staff and in many other roles. In your own ways, without fanfare, all of you are becoming part of the great history that we celebrate during this month.
Upholding the promise of liberty for all depends greatly on the work of this department. But it depends on much more – for example, on making sure that all our children are properly educated and rightly instructed in the principles that make life in America so special. So it’s indeed appropriate that this year’s theme for African American History Month centers on education.
We’re honored to have with us today Dr. Benjamin Williams, Principal of the Ron Brown College Preparatory High School here in Washington, D.C. After the film, he will lead a discussion about how we can help young African American men stay in school and reach their full potential.
Thank you all again for coming, and for listening to me. I’m sorry I can’t stay to watch the film, but I do hope you’ll enjoy it and that it will lead to a good conversation.