Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at Miles College Honors Convocation

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning. It is great to be here. My heart is just bursting with pride looking at this beautiful audience today. I want to first start off by thanking President Knight for the kind introduction and the very warm and gracious welcome that she’s extended to me today. And I want to thank all of you for welcoming me and giving me the opportunity to share in this wonderful occasion. Dr. Jarralynne Agee, it really is a privilege, because today is a celebration of achievement, of academic excellence, of hard work and perseverance. So, thank you for the opportunity to be here with you. I also just want to take a moment for the privilege to recognize my extraordinary team of colleagues from the U.S. Department of Justice including the U.S. Attorney’s Office who are here today. I’m going to ask that they all raise their hands.

This event shows that your school is proud of you. I know that your families are proud of you. And you should be very proud of yourselves.

I feel privileged to speak at such a historic institution as Miles College. One hundred and twenty-five years ago, Christian Methodist Episcopal pastors founded the College to provide educational opportunities for Black students, who continued to languish under the oppressive legacy of slavery, without access to other schools. Over the years Miles College continued to provide these opportunities, transforming the lives of thousands of Black students in our country. 

The school persisted through the bleak days of Jim Crow, as Black people in Alabama were denied the right to vote, to hold government offices, to serve on juries and to enjoy public facilities. It persisted through the carnage of lynchings — more than 300 right here in Alabama since 1900, including 14 in Jefferson County, and one right here in Fairfield in 1940. It persisted as police brutality and shocking acts of violence enforced an unwritten code that punished Blacks for looking at a white woman the wrong way, as a KKK bomb killed four little girls — 60 years ago tomorrow — at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Through all this hatred and injustice, Miles College stayed true to its calling, pursuing academic excellence and turning out graduates of distinction. 

And, as Birmingham became the epicenter of our nation’s Civil Rights Movement, Miles College unsurprisingly was right at the forefront. It was a haven for the heroes fighting for freedom, equality and justice. It was the engine for strategies to battle racial segregation. It was the source of inspiration, insight and hope.

One of your great alumni is Autherine Lucy, class of 1952, the youngest of 10 siblings. After graduating from Miles College, she applied to get a degree in teaching from the University of Alabama, and she was accepted. The University revoked the acceptance when they found out she was Black. But Brown v. Board of Education came down, and a court ruled that they had to let her in. She attended for all of three days, until a white mob, screaming and throwing things, drove her from the school. The response of the University: they expelled her. Fifty-four years later, they invited her back. She went and graduated and now, there is a scholarship that bears her name.

This school produced U.W. Clemon. At Miles College, he helped organize the successful boycott of downtown Birmingham stores to protest segregation and participated in Dr. King’s Birmingham campaign in 1963. When he graduated as valedictorian in 1965, the University of Alabama Law School would not admit Black people, so the state actually paid for him to attend Columbia Law School in New York. Well, Clemon returned the “favor” by coming right back to Birmingham as a civil rights lawyer where he successfully sued Bear Bryant to integrate the Crimson football team. And in 1980, President Carter appointed Clemon as the very first Black federal judge here in Alabama. 

Miles College is also the alma mater of Richard Arrington, who was a student, a professor, and later a dean here, before becoming the first Black mayor of Birmingham. He was reelected four times, serving 20 years and he worked to greatly expand opportunities for those who were the victims of discrimination in the city.

All of these icons are part of your legacy, of Miles College’s legacy, and of your Alabama heritage. And as you determine your life’s path, I urge you to consider their example, because they stood up for the fundamental American value of recognizing the worth of each human being. They fought for what they believed was right.  

We desperately need such courage and conviction right now. Hate and bigotry are on the rise. The apostles of division based on race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity have crawled out into the sunlight and been met not with universal condemnation, but with acceptance by elements of mainstream America. Statistics show that the average wealth for a Black family today is approximately $24,000, while the average wealth for a white family is approximately $188,000. Over two million people are incarcerated in our jails and prisons in this nation, a disproportionate number are Black and Brown people. And recent FBI statistics show that hate crimes have increased nationwide by more than 11%, from 2020 to 2021, and Black people continue to be the most frequently targeted. Key gains we have made in civil rights and racial justice are at risk. And at the same time, we face new civil rights battlegrounds, such as bias in artificial intelligence.

Maya Angelou said that “equal rights, fair play, are like the air. We all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.” 

You are achieving and receiving a sterling education at this institution, and your presence here today shows that you are excelling. You have intellectual power. You have a reservoir of untapped potential. You have vision and drive and I encourage you all to use them! 

Use them to fight for social justice. Use them to battle the malevolent forces of hate and prejudice. Use them to fight for economic justice and equal opportunity.   

But how do you do that? That is the question that you must answer yourself. A central feature of your experience at Miles College is self-discovery, finding out what you are passionate about, what you are good at, where your potential lies, beginning to deploy your talents to their highest and best purpose.

Making these choices comes easier to some people than others. If it makes you anxious, I encourage you to lighten up because you have a long journey ahead, with many twists and turns and your initial choice will not be your last. Your career will evolve. Richard Arrington started off as a zoologist in his first career, then a professor and an administrator before he became Mayor.

But as you weigh your choices, I urge you to consider the moment, this moment – you are a part of the Black Lives Matter generation. You are living at a time when we see threats to our democratic values and efforts to turn the clock back. I urge you to consider them in the context of public service as a platform to marshal your talents and to battle the forces opposing justice and equality. Whether your chosen course lies in art or business, medicine or engineering, law or government, in almost any discipline, you can find a way to do public service – as your vocation, of if not, as your avocation in your time off-the-job, or perhaps as an ultimate professional goal, like Mayor Arrington. 

Dr. King urged us to, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights,” he counseled. “You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.” And I can tell you from my own journey into law and civil rights that one great benefit of making this commitment is that it is deeply gratifying.

I stand before you today as the daughter of parents who immigrated to Brooklyn from Jamaica a few years before I was born. They wanted their kids to have access to better schools and greater opportunities than what they had back in the Caribbean. I grew up in the largest public housing complex in Brooklyn, New York. At home, the rules were simple: discipline, working hard in school, making the most of any opportunity that might fall your way.

During my junior year of high school, my teacher loaded my classmates and me into a van and drove us to a courthouse in Hartford, Connecticut. That day, they were hearing arguments in a landmark school desegregation case.

I had never been inside a courtroom before. But, right away, I felt the power of the space. The arguments presented by the civil rights lawyers, the evidence of ongoing segregation, the judge in the black robe with the power to decide whether to breathe life into the goals underlying Brown v. Board of Education. In that moment a spark was lit. I began to imagine what it would be like to become a civil rights lawyer, dedicated to the fight for justice.

After law school, I thought for a second about my debt and the appeal of a corporate law firm salary. But I couldn’t shake that feeling I had in that courtroom. I followed my gut and my heart and, went on to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. My first cases took me to places like Tensas Parish, Louisiana, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. The work wasn’t easy. I remember the hurt when I was dismissively referred to as “girl” on a trip to South Carolina. But I also remember the impact I made, like when an older NAACP activist in Louisiana said to me after a community meeting, “we don’t see lawyers like you very often around here. Thank you for listening to us. Keep fighting for us.” Moments like that are deeply gratifying.

Since then, I have continued in public service. After DOJ, I worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the organization that Thurgood Marshall once led, protecting the voting rights of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and standing up to defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. I then worked at the New York State Attorney General’s Office as the state’s top civil rights enforcement officer, taking on banks engaged in redlining, landlords bullying people out of affordable housing, the NYPD for their stop and frisk program, retailers engaged in racial profiling and more.

I then led the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the nation’s premier civil rights legal organizations. We fought voter suppression, challenged racial discrimination in the criminal justice system and more.

When President Biden called and asked me to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, I knew it was part of my calling. I stand before you today as the first woman, and the first Black woman in history, confirmed by Congress to serve in this role.

Our work every day at the Civil Rights Division reaffirms human rights and dignity. Let me describe some of it, and you’ll see why it is both worthwhile and satisfying. For one, we’re fighting to protect right to vote, seeking to ensure that all Americans have a voice in our democracy. We are challenging restrictive voting laws, discriminatory redistricting plans and other barriers to access to the ballot.

We are also taking on hate crimes. We are prosecuting the man who killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, based on the so-called theory that Black people are replacing whites. We convicted and secured lengthy jail terms against the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery just for being a Black man jogging on a public street. We obtained 90 consecutive life sentences against the man who killed 23 Hispanic people at an El Paso Wal-Mart store because, in his view, there were too many immigrants from Mexico. 

Since January 2021, we have charged more than 95 defendants for committing bias-motivated crimes. And in that same period, we obtained convictions against more than 80 defendants for committing hate crimes. And we do this work remembering the legacy of Emmett Till, the white supremacist-driven bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the dragging death of James Byrd 25 years ago in Jasper, Texas.

Enforcing hate crimes laws reflects our fundamental commitment to protecting the right of each person to dwell in their home, work at their job, jog down their street, shop in their stores, and engage in daily acts of just living without fear of attack based on how they look, where they are from, how they worship, who they love or who they are.

We’re also working to hold law enforcement officials accountable when they violate civil and constitutional rights, including Derek Chauvin and the three other officers who just stood as he killed George Floyd. We charged four officers tied to the tragic death of Breonna Taylor. And just this week in Memphis, we announced the indictment of five officers whose use of excessive force caused the tragic death of Tyre Nichols. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tyre Nichols should all be alive today.

We are standing up for historically marginalized communities that have dealt with the legacy of environmental injustice for far too long, including a settlement that we achieved in right here Lowndes County, Alabama, where generations of Black people have been denied access to basic sanitation services and exposed to raw sewage.

We are continuing the fight against discrimination and for equal justice on many other fronts as well, from combatting the scourge of modern-day redlining by banks and other lenders, we’re standing up to protect people with disabilities, we’re working to banish discrimination from our workplaces, we’re fighting voter suppression, we are confronting the school-to-prison pipeline, and much, much more.  

The great privilege I have in this job is that I get to do the right thing. That includes carrying forward the battle for civil rights and opposing discrimination and bigotry wherever it rears its ugly head.

But the rewards I receive from this work, the satisfaction, are not just from the totality, from doing it full time. Each specific effort, each individual vindication of justice and human dignity, is meaningful, and it feels meaningful. It feels worthwhile, which means that that kind of experience, that feeling, is accessible to each of you in this room today, because there is no shortage of ways for individuals committed to justice and equality to make a difference, no shortage of ways to be of service, no shortage of ways to reap the benefits in personal growth and fulfillment.

It may be hard for you to imagine, but someday, years from now, your child or grandchild or some other younger person may ask you, What did you do when civil rights were on the line? How did you respond to the upsurge in hate and bigotry? Did you use the lessons you learned at Miles College to honor the intrinsic value of every human being? Or did you stand aside, too busy with your day-to-day life, letting others carry the load? Did you feel good about your role? Did you derive fulfilment from your efforts? Did you make a difference?

You should be proud, like your parents and loved ones and professors are proud, of what you have accomplished thus far in your careers. You should be proud to be a part of the Miles College legacy and proud to be included in this Honors Convocation today. I hope, many years from now, when you look back, you will be just as proud of what you did with the knowledge and wisdom you received. Thank you so much for having me today.

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