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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at the Civil Rights Division's 65th Anniversary

Remarks as Delivered

Thank you. Thank you, Kristen.

Three months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Attorney General William P. Rogers made good on the Act’s authorization to establish a Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.

Today, it is a great privilege to be with you to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Division, and to recognize the generations of attorneys and staff who have sustained its mission to protect the civil and constitutional rights of every person in this country.

I want to thank – I want to give my thank you to the Division’s current attorneys and staff.

Thank you for your commitment to what I know is difficult and demanding work. 

Thank you for everything you do, every single day, to fulfill the mission of the Civil Rights Division.

I am grateful to you. And I am proud of you.

I also want to thank our Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke for her great stewardship of the Division, and for continuing the proud legacy of Division leaders who came before her.

Those include former Acting Assistant Attorney General and current Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. I am grateful for Vanita’s continued service to this Department, and for her dedication to making real the promise of equal justice under law.

Neither Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco nor I can claim membership on the list of distinguished Civil Rights Division alumni. But Lisa deserves at least honorary membership for the many ways in which, as Deputy Attorney General, she has advanced our efforts to protect civil rights across the Department.

I am very proud of this leadership team.

Since being nominated to serve as Attorney General, I have often talked about the historic roots of the Justice Department’s enduring obligation to protect civil rights.

When the Department was founded in 1870, in the wake of the Civil War and in the midst of Reconstruction, its first principal task was to protect the civil rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. This meant confronting white supremacists who used violence and threats of violence to prevent Black Americans from exercising their voting rights.

Unfortunately, the federal commitment to protecting those rights waned as Reconstruction drew to a close. It was not until almost a century later that Congress again passed civil rights legislation, in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. And it was not until several years after that that Congress – pressed by the Civil Rights Movement – passed truly significant civil rights legislation. Those laws – including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 – gave the Justice Department some of its most powerful tools to protect civil rights.

Since the establishment of the Division, generations of Civil Rights Division attorneys and staff have been tasked with some of this Department’s most important work of this Department. That work continues today.

The Civil Rights Division has been at the forefront of the Department’s efforts to protect the right to vote.

Attorneys in the Voting Section have brought voting rights cases and filed statements of interest and amicus briefs in the Supreme Court, federal district courts, and federal appeals courts across the country. They have sought to address discriminatory voting laws, to protect language access at the ballot box, and to ensure that voters with disabilities are able to exercise the right to vote. And they have worked to provide guidance and outreach to state and local election officials and the public about federal voting rights laws.

The Division has also been at the center of our efforts to prevent and prosecute hate crimes.

That work led to the convictions of the three men who targeted and killed Ahmaud Arbery because he was a Black man jogging on a public street. It led to the conviction of an individual who, motivated by racist and xenophobic beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic, targeted and attacked an Asian family at a supermarket in Midland, Texas. It led to the conviction of a man for a series of arsons targeting Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist churches.

And in July of this year, it led to the indictment of a defendant for federal hate crime and firearms offenses following the horrific attack on the Black community in Buffalo that killed 10 persons and injured three others.

The Division has also been central to the Department’s efforts to ensure constitutional policing and to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

It has investigated potential patterns and practices of unconstitutional policing in multiple jurisdictions across the country.

And it has obtained federal convictions of four former Minneapolis police officers for their roles in the death of George Floyd. Among those defendants were Derek Chauvin, who willfully deprived George Floyd of his constitutional rights, and three others who willfully failed to intervene to stop him.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe and Casey, the Division has also played an essential role in our work to defend federally protected reproductive rights. This has included enforcing the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and engaging in the Department-wide Reproductive Rights Task Force led by Associate Attorney General Gupta.

And last fall, I launched the Department’s Combating Redlining Initiative. This partnership between the Civil Rights Division and our U.S. Attorneys’ offices combats discriminatory practices in the housing market that violate federal law and contribute to the persistent wealth gap in this country.

Since then, we have announced four redlining cases and settlements. We have secured a total of $44 million in relief for communities that have suffered from lending discrimination. That includes a $20 million settlement with Trident Mortgage Company, which is the second largest redlining settlement in the history of the Justice Department.

The Department has also achieved important successes across the country in enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination in all of its forms.

And it has worked to protect the rights of veterans, to ensure that students have equal access to opportunity in schools, and to defend the rights of Americans with disabilities to equal opportunities and full participation in our society.

I am proud of the extraordinary work the Civil Rights Division has done on all of these matters – and so many more.

When I became Attorney General, I laid out three co-equal priorities for this Justice Department: to uphold the rule of law, to keep our country safe, and to protect civil rights.

For 65 years, the Civil Rights Division has led the Department’s efforts to fulfill its obligation to protect civil rights. And it continues to do so.

But now, more than ever, protecting civil rights is the responsibility of every Justice Department employee every single day.

Protecting civil rights is the responsibility of every one of our prosecutors, investigators, law enforcement agents, and staff.

Protecting civil rights is the responsibility of every one of our litigating, grantmaking, and law enforcement agencies.

Protecting the civil rights of our people is the responsibility of all of us because it is this Department’s inheritance and its urgent charge.

And protecting civil rights is our responsibility because it is the right thing to do.

That is the lesson taught by my friend and mentor, the great Drew Days.

When I first came to the Justice Department as a 26-year-old in 1979, Drew was serving as the 9th Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. He took me under his wing, beginning a lifelong friendship.

Drew was the first person to lead the Civil Rights Division who had worked as a civil rights lawyer outside the Department. He was the first Black person to lead the Civil Rights Division – or any DOJ division – for that matter.

Drew began his legal career working with Dr. King to combat housing discrimination in Chicago. As Assistant Attorney General, he aggressively enforced the civil rights laws.

The year before I came to the Department, Drew gave a speech in which he talked about one of his predecessors as Assistant Attorney General, the legendary John Doar. He recalled that when James Meredith was barred from attending classes at the University of Mississippi, Mr. Doar stood by his side.

Drew also described the scene in which Mr. Doar confronted an angry crowd. As Drew recalled, “Mr. Doar, speaking through a bullhorn said, ‘My name is John Doar, and I stand for what’s right.’”

Drew concluded by saying: “That is how I would like the Civil Rights Division and its lawyers to be seen – as standing for what’s right.”

It gives me great pride, and I know it would give Drew great pride, to see that his wish is being fulfilled – not only within the Division, but across the entire Department.

We are standing for what is right. Thanks to all of you.

Source: USDOJ