Department of Justice, March 3, 2013
Thank you — and thank you all for being here today. It’s an honor for Sharon and me to join so many friends, colleagues, and national civil rights leaders for this important celebration. And it’s a pleasure to be back in Selma today.
Each year, with the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we commemorate the transformative events of nearly half a century ago. We honor generations of heroes — those brave men and women, seemingly ordinary but all extraordinary — who throughout history have risked, and too often given, their lives in order that others might live free. And we rededicate ourselves to the ongoing struggle — for equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal justice — that must continue to be our shared priority and our common cause.
My wife, Sharon, and I are proud to have a family connection to the Civil Rights Movement here in Alabama. 50 years ago this June — with Justice Department officials at their sides — two brave young students stepped past Governor George Wallace to integrate the University of Alabama. Sharon’s sister, Vivian Malone, was one of those brave students. And, although Vivian passed away a few years ago — far too soon — I know she’s here with us in spirit today.
Like all in this crowd who are old enough to remember the 1960s — when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, and, never let it be forgotten, progress was anything but assured — I will always remember those turbulent days. It was a time of great uncertainty, when racial discrimination was institutionalized and segregation was the law of the land. It was a period of difficulty and danger for those who stood up — and spoke out — against an unjust, entrenched status quo.
But it was also a moment of hope, and significant promise, for legions of activists who kept faith in America’s ability to live up to its founding ideals — and who drew strength from the power of our legal system to serve as a strong, deft instrument of positive change. Though they could not have imagined it, it is the work of those brave activists that made the election of Barack Obama possible, that made the possibility of a black Attorney General real.
At its core, this is the struggle exemplified in the moment we remember today, when — in the first days of March, 1965, hundreds of peaceful activists, protesting to secure the right to vote, set out from Selma along the road to Montgomery. Alongside a young man named John Lewis — and a range of ordinary citizens and civil rights leaders — they made it as far as the bridge we’ll be crossing in just a short time. But there, they were met with terrible violence at the hands of state and local law enforcement, and dozens were hospitalized.
Fortunately, this dark incident failed to discourage those who rallied across the country for equal opportunity and equal rights. In fact, it provoked outrage throughout Alabama and around the world.
In the following days and weeks, as legal battles raged and protesters organized, thousands came to Selma to complete this march. And what became known as “Bloody Sunday” not only steeled the resolve of America’s civil rights leaders — it compelled our national policymakers to take action.
With the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress and President Johnson finally created a robust safeguard for preventing discrimination and disenfranchisement in our elections — and provided a set of important tools which remain not only effective, but essential, even today.
For our nation’s Department of Justice, the fair and vigorous enforcement of this and other vital protections — and their defense against all Constitutional challenges — constitutes a top priority. Let me be clear: although our nation has indeed changed, although the South is far different now, and although progress has indeed been made, we are not yet at the point where the most vital part of the Voting Rights Act can be deemed unnecessary. The struggle for voting rights for all Americans must continue — and it will.
More broadly, the preservation of the progress we’ve gathered to celebrate represents a charge that has been entrusted to each of us, and a promise that tomorrow’s leaders — all of you — must strive to fulfill. It animates my efforts — and those of my colleagues at every level of the Justice Department — to safeguard the rights that so many have fought and died to secure.
We can all be proud of the track record that’s been established — and the results we’ve obtained — over the last few years. But as the history we commemorate proves, the Justice Department cannot do it alone.
So today — as we observe this milestone, and honor the sacrifices of those who were prevented from crossing this bridge half a century ago — let us also pledge our own commitment to continuing the work that remains unfinished. Let us challenge one another — and our nation — to aim higher, and to carry forward the fundamental ideals upon which this country was founded.
This is our solemn obligation. This is our unique opportunity. And this afternoon, in the moment of remembrance before us — as we reflect on our past, and consider how far we’ve come in the days since Bloody Sunday — I cannot help but feel optimistic about the country — and the world — that, together, we will imagine; plan for; and surely help to create.