Speaking at the site of one of the most hateful acts of the civil-rights era, Attorney General Janet Reno promised that the Justice Department will expand its effort to fight against racial discrimination in lending, employment, education and other areas.
On the day of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, Reno chose the church where four young black girls were killed in a 1963 bombing to call on the nation to confront racial tensions and to broadly outline her policies for President Clinton’s next term.
“I fear that what national consensus we have on civil rights may be at risk of unraveling,” Reno said before a packed audience at the 16th Street Baptist Church. “… There is today real disagreement about what ‘civil rights’ … really means. There are some that think we have gone too far; who think we have already achieved the aims of the civil-rights movement. I say that is not so. Some Americans, including some minorities, now question whether integration is still a valid goal.”
More often than not, she said, many Americans of different backgrounds and races continue to live in largely separate worlds.
While signaling that matters of discrimination were a high personal and departmental priority, Reno also sought to allay fears that the impending departure of civil-rights chief Deval Patrick might mean a retreat on such matters. Patrick is generally regarded as having been an aggressive enforcer of civil-rights laws and often came under fire from conservatives.
On affirmative action, Reno bluntly denounced as “misguided” proposals by Republicans and California voters to curtail affirmative action by government.
“The president and I will continue to oppose - at every step of the way - any wholesale ban on affirmative action in federal law,” she said. That comment was greeted enthusiastically by the largely black audience.
Reno also vowed to support legal battles to ensure that universities maintain and improve racial diversity, and to ensure that allegations of police brutality will be vigorously pursued.
Although Reno acknowledged there has been progress on matters of race, gender and other forms of discrimination, she argued that the legacy of an ugly past remained.
“We cannot say we have completed our journey when even today, blacks and Hispanics and in many cases women have a harder time getting into college, renting an apartment, getting a job or obtaining a loan,” Reno said in her 50-minute address. “We have not completed our journey when the unemployment rate for black males is still twice as high as it is for white males. … That’s not right.”