As I mentioned yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder stepped into the heart of the fire to give a speech about voting rights in Columbia, South Carolina on this day celebrating the life and work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He began by reminding us of the tenacity of the one we honor today.
Throughout his life, Dr. King spoke often of the “fierce urgency of now.” When he saw injustice in the world, he felt a need to act – and to do so immediately, purposefully, and collaboratively. When he looked upon his nation, he saw – not only great challenges, but also extraordinary opportunities. He saw infinite possibilities. And he saw – clearly – that for every individual to be free, and for our founding ideals to be realized, our entire society had to be transformed.
Despite the odds against him, he was undeterred. Despite the obstacles before him, he kept his faith. And despite those who tried to stand in his way, he proved that – here in America – large-scale, sweeping, righteous change is not impossible. It is not too audacious. It is not too ambitious. And it is not the province of God alone. Dr. King proved that a single person, willing to act, has the power to improve the world. And I believe that each one of us has a responsibility to try to do exactly that.
Of course, this is not easy work. And history has shown us that our most noble pursuits may be inspired by frustration just as often as by faith. But one of the most important lessons that Dr. King left to us is that it is acceptable to be frustrated. It is fine to be impatient. And, when progress does not come quickly or fully, it is only natural to be dissatisfied. In fact, being frustrated, impatient and dissatisfied is fine – but only if those feelings compel us to take action.
And then he spoke to a specific challenge we face today.
As [NAACP] President Jealous and others have discussed today – despite our nation’s record of progress, and long tradition of extending voting rights – today, a growing number of citizens are worried about the same disparities, divisions, and problems that Dr. King fought throughout his life to address and overcome. In recent months, in my travels across this country – and here in South Carolina – I’ve heard a consistent drumbeat of concern from citizens, who – often for the first time in their lives – now have reason to believe that we are failing to live up to one of our nation’s most noble ideals; and that some of the achievements that defined the civil rights movement now hang in the balance.
Let me assure you: for today’s Department of Justice, our commitment to strengthening – and to fulfilling – our nation’s promise of equal opportunity and equal justice has never been stronger.
Nowhere is this clearer than in current efforts to expand access to, and prevent discrimination in, our election systems...
We need – and the American people deserve – election systems that are free from discrimination, free from partisan influence, and free from fraud. And we must do everything within our power to make certain that these systems are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country... But we can’t do it alone.
Protecting the right to vote, ensuring meaningful access, and combating discrimination must be viewed, not only as a legal issue – but as a moral imperative. And ensuring that every eligible citizen has the right to vote must become our common cause...
So let us seize this moment. Let us keep faith with Dr. King and rise to the challenges of our time. Let us act – with optimism and without delay; in honor of the men and women on whose shoulders we stand, and on behalf of the generations who will follow in our steps. And, in the spirit of Dr. King, let us signal to the world that – in America today – the pursuit of a more perfect union lives on, the march toward the Promised Land goes on, and the belief – not merely that we shall overcome, but that, as a nation, we will come together – continues to push us forward.