ABOVE PHOTO: Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Delta Sigma Thetas Social Action luncheon, part of the sorority’s 51st National Convention in Washington, Monday, July 15, 2013. Holder said the killing of Trayvon Martin was a “tragic, unnecessary shooting” and that the 17-year-old’s death provides an opportunity for the nation to speak honestly about complicated and emotionally charged issues. In his first comments since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Martin case, the attorney general said that Martin’s parents have suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure. He said the nation must not forgo an opportunity toward better understanding of one another.
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Thank you, Derrick [Johnson], for those kind words – and thank you all for such a warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be in Orlando today. And it’s a privilege to join President [Ben] Jealous, Chairman [Roslyn] Brock, your National Board of Directors – and my good friends Secretary [Shaun] Donovan and Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius – in celebrating the NAACP’s 104th Annual Convention, and recommitting ourselves to your important work.
I’m proud to be in such good company this afternoon – among so many friends, courageous civil rights leaders, and passionate men and women who have dedicated themselves to bringing our nation together, addressing common challenges, and focusing attention on the problems and inequities that too many of our citizens continue to face.
Even as this convention proceeds, we are all mindful of the tragic and unnecessary shooting death of Trayvon Martin last year – in Sanford, just a short distance from here – and the state trial that reached its conclusion on Saturday evening. Today, I’d like to join President Obama in urging all Americans to recognize that – as he said – we are a nation of laws, and the jury has spoken. I know the NAACP and its members are deeply, and rightly, concerned about this case – as passionate civil rights leaders, as engaged citizens, and – most of all – as parents. This afternoon, I want to assure you of two things: I am concerned about this case and as we confirmed last spring, the Justice Department has an open investigation into it. While that inquiry is ongoing, I can promise that the Department of Justice will consider all available information before determining what action to take.
Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly – and openly – about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.
Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation – which is no doubt familiar to many of you – about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted. I’m sure my father felt certain – at the time – that my parents’ generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.
Since those days, our country has indeed changed for the better. The fact that I stand before you as the 82nd Attorney General of the United States, serving in the Administration of our first African American President, proves that. Yet, for all the progress we’ve seen, recent events demonstrate that we still have much more work to do – and much further to go.
The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father’s words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man – when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.
Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15 -year- old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.
As important as it was, I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn’t the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events.
In the days leading up to this weekend’s verdict, some predicted – and prepared for – riots and waves of civil unrest across the country. Some feared that the anger of those who disagreed with the jury might overshadow and obscure the issues at the heart of this case. But the people of Sanford, and, for the most part, thousands of others across America, rejected this destructive path. They proved wrong those who doubted their commitment to the rule of law. And across America, diverse groups of citizens, from all races, backgrounds, and walks of life, are instead overwhelmingly making their voices heard – as American citizens have the right to do – through peaceful protests, rallies, and vigils designed to inspire responsible debate – not incite violence and division; and those who conduct themselves in a contrary manner do not honor the memory of Trayvon Martin.
I hope that we will continue to approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most – Trayvon’s parents – have demonstrated throughout the last year – and especially over the past few days. They suffered a pain that no parent should have to endure – and one that I, as a father, cannot begin to conceive. As we embrace their example – and hold them in our prayers – we must not forego this opportunity to better understand one another. And we must not fail to seize this chance to improve this nation we cherish.
Today – starting here and now – it’s time to commit ourselves to a respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality – so we can meet division and confusion with understanding, with compassion, and ultimately with truth.
It’s time to strengthen our collective resolve to combat gun violence but also time to combat violence involving or directed toward our children – so we can prevent future tragedies. And we must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs, and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments.
Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if – and the “if” is important – no safe retreat is available.
[The second part of Attorney General Holder’s address to the NAACP, in next week’s issue of the SUN]
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