CRIME: Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks At The Civil Rights Division’s Virtual Program: Celebrating The Life And Legacy Of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Remarks as Delivered

Hello, everyone.

It is my pleasure to greet you, on behalf of our Civil Rights Division and the Department of Justice, at this gathering honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr 93rd Birthday.

One lesson, particularly relevant to our work at the Justice Department, is that: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

We know that progress in our democracy is not – and has never been – steady. Instead, it demands constant vigilance. This is evident in our own history at the Justice Department.

As I have stated many times, the Justice Department was founded over 150 to protect civil rights.

Founded in the wake of the Civil War and in the midst of Reconstruction, the department’s first principal task was to secure the civil rights promised by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. This required confronting the Ku Klux Klan who used violence and threats to stop Black Americans exercising their right of vote.

It would take almost a century for Congress to pass the first major civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established the Civil Rights Division within this department with the mission to “uphold the civil and constitutional right of all Americans .”

Dr. King and civil rights movement’s persistent cry to action led to subsequent laws being passed — the Civil Rights Act of 1964,, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.. These laws were enacted because of the extraordinary efforts of Dr. King and civil rights movement. The Justice Department now has some of the most crucial tools to protect Americans’ civil rights.

Nearly 20 Years after the Civil Rights Division was established, Drew Days, an attorney who started his legal career in Chicago fighting housing discrimination and then worked as the first Assistant Counsel for Legal Defense Fund, became the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division.

Drew was the first Black person to lead the Civil Rights Division, or any other DOJ division for that matter.

Drew was the Assistant Attorney General who vigorously enforced civil rights laws. Drew was also a mentor to me, during and after my first stint in DOJ. He also worked with Lani Guinier, who went on to a distinguished career as an academic and civil rights advocate. We mourn his passing this week.

Drew Days is the Civil Rights Division’s first outstanding civil rights organization alum. Jocelyn Samuels, Bill Lann Lee, and Deval Patrick followed his lead.

I am proud that DOJ continues this tradition today — with Assistant attorney General Kristen Clarke and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gopta, both of whom are former heads of the Civil Rights Division. We have a fantastic leadership team!

Throughout our tenure at the department, it is clear that the mission to defend civil rights continues to be a priority.

We remember the words of Dr. King that “progress is not automatic or inevitable,” and that every step requires “the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

We remember this as we work to protect the civil rights of every person.

We remember this as we exercise every power we have to ensure that every citizen is able to vote.

We remember this because we use every tool at our disposal in order to prevent, prevent and prosecute hate crime.

We remember this when we strive to improve environmental justice, make equal access justice a reality for every American, and address inequities within the criminal justice system.

We remember our obligation to Americans to respect their civil rights and liberties throughout all of the work that we do, in every investigation and in every case. And we also remember how we fulfil every one of those responsibilities.

I am proud of how the Justice Department has worked to protect civil rights over the past 10 months, but we are under no illusions about the enormity of the work we have left to do.

I would be remiss if i didn’t highlight the difficulties we face in our efforts to protect voting rights.

As you know, the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision effectively removed the preclearance protections in Section 5 of The Voting Rights Act. This was the department’s most powerful tool to protect voting rights for the past 50 years. The reach of Section 2 has been significantly narrowed by subsequent decisions.

Since those decisions, there have been dramatic increases in legislative enactments which make it difficult for millions of eligible voters vote and elect their representatives.

The Department of Justice will do everything it can to ensure voting rights, and we will continue to use the enforcement powers that we have.

But Congress must act to give the department all the power it needs to ensure every voter is able to cast a valid vote.

In an editorial that was published after his passing, John Lewis reminded us of another important lesson from Dr. King. He said that each person has a moral responsibility to speak up, stand up and make a difference. You must do something when you notice something wrong. You must do something .”

I repeat these words often because the Justice Department also has that moral obligation. We will continue to speak up, speak out, and act.

We will continue to support the ideals Dr. King lived for.

Thank you for being here today.

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