Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Civil Rights Division’s Virtual Program: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. | OPA

Remarks as Delivered

I am honored to join all of you for this celebration of the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Today, we not only lift up all that Dr. King did for our nation, but we remember that his work has not yet been completed. We recommit ourselves to our common project of building a more perfect, equal union.

Dr. King dreamed of a nation where his four little children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” As the first daughter of immigrant parents and as the first woman of color to serve as the Associate Attorney General of the United States, I consider myself one of the children born from Dr. King’s dream. Every day – at the Civil Rights Division and throughout the Department of Justice – we work to make Dr. King’s dream of America a reality. 

Dr. King’s moral leadership continues to serve as a beacon for us today, especially as our nation grapples with many of the same urgent questions – questions about equality, justice and democracy – that Dr. King so powerfully answered. 

Dr. King’s life exemplifies the transformative power of moral courage and resilience. When faced with brutal opposition, Dr. King never succumbed to fear or despair. Instead, he turned to his unwavering faith in non-violent action, redemption and love. 

The mass demonstrations Dr. King organized – and the nation’s collective horror at the heinous violence directed at peaceful protestors – ushered in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And, in 1968, galvanized into action by Dr. King’s tragic assassination, President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law.

Over the last half century, the department has worked tirelessly to honor Dr. King’s legacy by enforcing the laws that he championed and protecting the most vulnerable among us. We vigorously safeguard the right to vote. We ensure that people have equal opportunity to get an education, choose where to live, earn a living, get a loan and worship freely. We build trust between communities and law enforcement by supporting community policing and, where violations occur, holding departments and officers accountable. And we make sure that people can live free from exploitation, discrimination and violence regardless of their race or ethnicity, their religion, their disability or how they identify or who they love.

But as Dr. King well knew, the path towards justice is rarely straightforward or smooth. Our nation stands at a critical juncture that will define the arc of our democracy for years to come. The summer of 2020 saw diverse coalitions take to the streets, demanding justice for communities of color. The pandemic revealed deep schisms in our society and saw a troubling rise in hate crimes. And just one week ago we marked the anniversary of the attack on the U.S. Capitol that interrupted a fundamental element of American democracy – the peaceful transfer of power. Although the attack was ultimately unsuccessful, it serves a stark reminder that each of us must commit to defending this democracy of ours.

In calling for the passage of voting rights legislation, Dr. King declared that the denial of the “sacred right” to vote “is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic traditions.” Yet in recent months, states across the country have enacted a rash of laws that erect barriers for millions of eligible voters to cast their ballot and to elect representatives of their choosing. The department has vigorously responded – including by initiating lawsuits to challenge laws that discriminate on the basis of race and disability, filing statements of interest to support the work of partners across the country and issuing guidance to make clear that jurisdictions must comply with the voting rights laws as they redraw district lines, develop voting procedures and engage in post-election audits. 

The department stands ready to do all that it can to protect the right to vote and to ensure that all lawful votes are counted. However, to be most effective, we need Congress to give the department the laws we need to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a vote that counts.

As we face these challenges of our time, let us draw strength from Dr. King’s eternal hope for this country. He exhorted America to remember, as we remind each other today, the “fierce urgency of now.” “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy…Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all…” Let us act together, with the “fierce urgency of now,” until every person in this country can share in the free, and fair, and just America that Dr. King dreamed of.

Thank you all for joining us today to commemorate Dr. King’s life, and I want to extend a special thanks to the Civil Rights Division for organizing this extraordinary event. We in the department look forward to working with you to advance civil rights in honor of his legacy.

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